Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: "Mortality"

I wouldn't presume to be equal to the task of paying an adequate tribute to Christopher Hitchens, but the HRI Book Club adopted Mortality as its selection for November and I will give it my best. The book is as much about Hitchens' as it is on the subject of mortality as the two converged as the author faced the end. Hitch would have abhorred a maudlin display or hero worship, but who can deny his impact?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: "Faitheist"

The Humanist Book Club adopted Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious for its December discussion in preparation for an author visit to Bryant University, co-sponsored by the Humanists of Rhode Island. I found the book alternately challenging and exasperating, but its limitations are mitigated by the youth and inexperience of the author and chronological development of the memoir. Most often, the questions he raises in one part of the book, he resolves elsewhere. The logical inconsistencies are suggestive of a young author who has yet to resolve every nuance of the issues that preoccupy him. Who has?

Book Review: "Doubt"

The Humanist Book Club selection for September was Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson by Jennifer Hecht. To say that the author's depth and breadth of knowledge is impressive is an understatement.  

The main thesis seems to be that the nature of doubt reflects the nature of belief and vice versa. According to Hecht, compulsory faith was not a part of religion until the emergence of skepticism and secularism. Belief yields to rationalism when doubters crave knowledge. When cosmopolitan life exposes believers to rival faiths, orthodoxy yields to tolerance but leaves doubters craving meaning. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Write-a-thon for Human Rights

On Sunday afternoon, December 16, Steve Ahlquist and I participated in the 25th annual Amnesty International Write-a-thon for Human Rights hosted by the First Unitarian Church of Providence. The event was held from 1:00-5:00. Folders were provided containing profiles, letter templates and blank paper for handwritten notes.

Volunteers wrote letters of solidarity to prisoners of conscience and to authorities appealing for the release of these prisoners. Other letters called for the investigation of harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, torture, rape, disappearance and murder of human rights activists.

Appeals for the release of prisoners of conscience were sent on behalf of political activist Nabeel Rejab (Bahrain), opposition Youth leader Zmitser Dashkevich (Belarus), human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (China), secularist writer Arzhang Davoodi (Iran), and the members of punk-rock collective Pussy Riot (Russia).

Letters calling for the investigation of crimes against activists were sent on behalf of Women's Link Worldwide (WLW) Program Director Mónica Roa (Colombia), The Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), Sudanese activist youth group Girifna ("We're fed up") and LGBTI activist Noxolo Nogwaza (South Africa).

Letters of solidarity--but not to authorities--were requested for Missouri inmate Reggie Clemons in a case of prosecutorial misconduct.

There was a tremendous sense of community among the Unitarians and their guests, and some momentary fanfare over the arrival of Congressman David Cicilline and Senator Jack Reed. The predominant mood was a sense of commitment to positive action. I encourage anyone who can to participate in such events in the future whenever possible.

Friday, November 30, 2012

An Open Letter to Governor Chafee


The Honorable Lincoln D. Chafee
Office of the Governor
82 Smith Street
Providence, RI 02903

Dear Governor Chafee,

The Humanists of Rhode Island are proud to support your recent actions regarding the artificial controversy fomented on talk radio and Fox News regarding the Holiday Tree at the Rhode Island State House.

Rhode Island has a long and proud tradition of religious freedom, secularity and freethought. Roger Williams founded this state to honor the conscience and traditions of all faiths and no faiths, and your actions reflect these values.

Thank you for taking this stand and for navigating the difficult terrain of those who seek to politicize the holidays for personal fortune and fame.


Steve Ahlquist
Humanists of Rhode Island

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bryant University Hosts “Faitheist” Author with Local Humanists

Author Chris Stedman will speak at Bryant University at 7PM on Wednesday, November 28. Copies of his book, “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious,” will be available for sale, with proceeds going to benefit Habitat for Humanity. The event, co-sponsored by Humanists of Rhode Island, will be held in the Bryant Interfaith Center. The public is cordially invited to attend.

Having endured intolerance as a gay Christian and then as an atheist interfaith activist, Stedman now argues for respectful dialogue between atheists and believers and cooperation in social action between secular and interfaith communities. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, Values in Action Coordinator at the Humanist Community at Harvard and author of Non-Prophet Status, a blog dedicated to atheist-interfaith engagement.

Stedman earned his MA in Religion from the University of Chicago and served on the Leadership Team of the Common Ground Campaign, a response to anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence surrounding the Park51 controversy. He also served as a Content Developer for the Interfaith Youth Corps and now sits on the Board of Directors of the interfaith global development organization World Faith and advises the “Challenge the Gap” charitable initiative of the Foundation Beyond Belief.

The Bryant campus is located at 1500 Douglas Pike in Smithfield, RI. Campus sponsors include Literary and Cultural Studies, History and Social Sciences, Applied Psychology, the Women’s Center, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Interfaith Center.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Herb Silverman "Candidate Without a Prayer"

Herb Silverman, President of the Secular Coalition of America and author of the book Candidate Without a Prayer spoke on Friday, October 12, 2012 at Books on the sqaure in providence Rhode Island. This event was co-sponsored by Humanists of Rhode Island.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Candidate Without a Prayer in Providence tonight!

In 1990 Herb Silverman ran for governor and challenged a South Carolina law that prevented atheists from holding public office and won a Supreme Court victory, but not the election. He went on to become a prominent atheist and secular activist, and founded the Secular Coalition of America, “a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization whose purpose is to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.”

Silverman will be at Books on the Square, 471 Angell St. in Providence at 7:00pm  this evening to talk about his run for governor and his subsequent adventures to promote his book, Candidate Without a Prayer. (Even though I linked the book title to Amazon I suggest showing up and supporting Books on the Square, a fantastic local bookstore). This event was planned in conjunction with the Humanists of Rhode Island.

Silverman is a larger than life personality and a gifted storyteller, so this is sure to be a great event of interest to anyone cares about politics and religion and where the two intersect.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Anchoring Our Volunteerism and Our Identity

One of the motivations behind the foundation of Humanists of Rhode Island was to provide a means by which humanists, atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers could reliably and regularly express themselves through volunteerism in the community. By design, volunteerism is built into the very DNA of Humanists of Rhode Island, and one of the ways we do this is by setting up a regular gig, specifically the second Saturday of every month, to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Providence.

What this means is that each month our group provides Habitat between five and seven volunteers ready to do the hard, but fun and rewarding work of building a house between 8:30 AM and 3 PM on a day many people would prefer to be sleeping late. We've been volunteering regularly now as a group for just over a year and we are one of the most regular and consistent groups volunteering at our local Habitat. We have a great reputation there for consistency and quality. Even when we can only get three or four people to show up, as sometimes happens in those long, hot summer months when it seems that everyone is traveling or otherwise engaged, we at least have someone there, ready to work.

Having a group to depend on and that depends on you is very satisfying. Even on the occasional weekend where I personally can't make it to a build, I know that there are other Humanists out there, picking up my slack. I might feel badly about not being there and contributing, but I can at least be glad that there are people I know contributing to the public good as members of a group I am proud to be a part of.

This last weekend our group represented in unprecedented numbers, as six new people, Greg, Allison, Dounia, Michelle, Ethan and Joyce showed up in addition to Adam, Shawn and myself. We had a total of nine people show up to work at a brand new house. We had some Humanists on the roof nailing shingles, working outside on the siding, and inside putting up firewall. We worked side by side with another group and accomplished quite a bit. The house was noticeably more complete by the time we packed up and left.

Talking to some of the newcomers I was pleased to hear that what attracted them to our group was the opportunity to volunteer with Habitat. These are people who may or may not want to engage in political work ensuring the separation of church and state, join us on picnics or attend book signings, but they do want a community from which to engage with the greater society as volunteers, and I'm proud to say that my little group, in our own little way, provides that.

Volunteerism is an end unto itself. Making the world a better place is the right thing to do. The feeling of accomplishment and the positive feelings generated after participation are bonuses: happy side effects of our necessary work. Of course, maybe I have this backwards. Maybe we are all just going after the positive emotional benefits that such volunteerism provides, and the fact that the world has been slightly improved is just a happy consequence. Either way you slice it, so what? This is what they call a win/win situation, and I'm happy to be a part of it.

Another happy consequence of our volunteer efforts is the moral authority such work accrues to our causes. It would be quite easy for the public at large to dismiss our political concerns regarding human rights and church/state separation if we were simply a group writing indignant letters to the editor and having once a month potlucks in a community room somewhere. But our volunteer work shows that we are willing to put our ideals into action. We live our values. That makes us harder to ignore.

Humanists of Rhode Island, in addition to Habitat, also maintain a two mile stretch of road in Cranston Rhode Island as part of an Adopt-a-Highway program run by the state. We've just started holding blood drives as well. We're sponsoring a team for Light the Night to raise money to fight Leukemia and Lymphoma. We'll be out doing holiday gift wrapping to raise money for some special cause later in the year. And other efforts will come our way as well, since we're always looking for more to do.

Is it possible for a group to do too much? I don't think so. There are two things to remember here. First, not everybody can do everything. Personally, I can't give blood. But I can pick up litter and pound nails. Others have no problem giving blood and building houses but get grossed out at the prospect of picking up litter. Still others love to gift wrap.

The second thing to remember is that people will find your group because of what you're doing. Habitat is bringing new members into our group, and building houses might be all they are interested in doing. That's great! A group that has a lot of things going on allows those participating to feel real ownership of the projects they participate in. It's important to remember that the group doesn't belong to any one person, it belongs to every member.

Next month our Habitat volunteer team might have nine members again, or we might have four, or we might have sixteen. I like to think we're growing, that our efforts are paying off and that we're changing hearts and minds through our volunteerism.

This is how we change the world for the better.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Portsmouth Citizen Questions Ahlquist's Award at Touro

From the Newport Daily News Aug 25-26, 2012, page A-8:

Touro's honor for atheist student was puzzling


"Unfortunately, the First Amendment has been broadly interpreted to somehow give the state the right to drive out any outward expression of one's religion."

It was with sincere dismay that I read the lead story in the Aug. 20 Newport Daily News, relating the events surrounding the annual reading of President George Washington’s letter of 1790. This letter, which was written before the Bill of Rights had been established, is a historic masterpiece that includes the famous words, “For happily the Gov. of the U.S. which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” gave comfort to the Newport Jewish community that, like all other religions in America, they were free in the full practice and expression of their faith.

With that in mind, it was puzzling and disappointing that this historic occasion was used in part for the presentation of an award to Jessica Ahlquist, the young student litigant in a suit against the Cranston School Department pursuing the ultimate removal of a banner of long standing given to Cranston West High School by a graduating class many years ago. The suit supported by Ms. Ahlquist and atheist groups, and sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, sought the removal of the banner which contained a list of good citizenship goals and was preceded by the offending words “Heavenly Father help us to,” which speaks to no particular religion, but applies to all religions in one form or another.

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, free from government interference. Unfortunately the First Amendment has been broadly interpreted to somehow give the state the right to drive out any outward expression of one’s religion. The lawsuits continue across the country even to the extent of asking for the removal of a cross on top of a hill at a Marine base in California, erected to honor of some of their fallen comrades in Afghanistan, and the move to eliminate the religious identity of other fallen heroes from shrines and monuments erected in their honor: These men died defending all the assurances encompassed in the Washington letter and the First Amendment. Religious freedom applies to all. If Touro Synagogue Foundation Chairman Andrew Teitz wanted to honor Ms. Ahlquist, he is of course free to do so, but this thoughtless presentation should not have been shrouded in an important historical event.

Kathleen M. Melvin

Friday, August 24, 2012

The KKK and Rhode Island: A Shameful History

The KKK in Foster, RI
It's amazing how history loves to reach out from the past and smack us full in the face in the present.

Such is the situation in Smithfield, Rhode Island right now as residents wake up to the reality that one of their beautiful residential streets is named after a Grand Cyclops of Rhode Island's own Ku Klux Klan. As reported in the Valley Breeze:
The late John Algernon Domin is memorialized in this community by the street that bears his name, Domin Avenue.
But questions are arising over why such an honor befits the man who in 1926 assumed a leadership role in Rhode Island's Roger Williams Klavern No. 16, Ku Klux Klan.
In fact, it was on Domin's property, off Stillwater Road in the Georgiaville section, that the Klan held rallies drawing thousands of members and supporters.
The sudden realization that certain parts of Rhode Island used to harbor hate groups should come as no surprise, but people are quick to forget the seamy, hateful parts of their collective memories and tend to concentrate on the good parts. A quick and easy history of the Klan in RI can be downloaded as a PDF here, reprinting a Providence Journal story.

One part struck me:
Rhode Island Klansmen differed from their southern brethren in several respects. The Klan was linked with Democrats in the South, but Klansmen of New England were most often associated with Republicans, the more conservative party, Smith says. 
The state’s Klan groups also drew largely from the business and professional classes, not the poor and uneducated. They staged gatherings flavored with familiar cultural trappings. 

“Outside of New England, you didn’t see many Klans celebrating at clambakes.”
Another difference was the target of the Klan's wrath:
In 1920, Rhode Island’s black population composed less than 4 percent of the state’s residents. But, in 1921, about 45 percent of the state’s 600,000 people were Catholic, and Klan recruiters often found a welcome mat off village lanes.
For me the saddest part of this sordid history is this:
In a state founded on the principle of religious tolerance, America’s foremost hate group found fertile soil, the historical record indicates.
Indeed, John Algernon Domin was the Grand Cyclops of a Klan group that named itself after Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the father of religious tolerance. The gall of twisting history and abusing the good name of our state's founder to advance a program of hatred is staggering, until you think of evangelical pseudo-historian David Barton, who would rewrite the Founding Fathers of the United States as messianic zealots establishing a Christian theocracy.
The Rhode Island Klan appeared to differ from other Klan dens in one other key aspect: It was not commonly associated with violence. Newspaper reports make no mention of lynchings, floggings or brandings common in other states.
No, aside from occasionally trying to burn down a boarding school for black children the RI KKK restricted itself to terrorism via cross burning and racist leafleting.

Unfortunately, as much as Rhode Island is justly celebrated as being a bastion of religious freedom, it also has a long history of prejudice and intolerance. A look at the hysterical behavior of the crowds at the school committee meetings in Cranston concerning the prayer banner, or the quick and dirty way our state assembly passed a voter identification law to address a nonexistent problem that had the effect of disenfranchising certain voters demonstrates this tendency quite well.

I can't say that today's right-wing, Tea Party infused political climate is the same as that which gave rise to the KKK in the 1920's, but certainly both movements draw from the same sources.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Patrick Conley on Rhode Island’s religious history: Another perspective

by Chuck Flippo

As someone who frequently references Patrick Conley’s historical research, I do not question the particular historical facts he presents in his August 13 Providence Journal editorial “Rhode Island never touted freedom from religion."  He is correct that, despite being a bastion of religious tolerance, colonial Rhode Island did not have actual separation of church and state as is often thought.  Unfortunately, Conley’s editorial ignores the very lessons one should draw from the historical facts that he has done so much to document.  And his final comment, that people standing up for separation of church and state should “not use history to validate your position," is so off the mark as to be an absolute embarrassment to someone with Mr. Conley’s credentials.

Confusion over Rhode Island’s history is perhaps understandable given that the original settlers of Providence signed a document in 1637 agreeing to govern themselves “only in civil things” as opposed to governing religious thought.  That sounds a lot like separation of church and state.  That agreement, however, was soon supplanted by other governing documents that reflected the philosophies of the much less secular founders of Portsmouth and Newport.  The other leaders of colonial Rhode Island did not seem to share Roger Williams’ commitment to the “wall or hedge” of separation. 

And Conley is right about the 1663 charter that John Clarke sent back from England.  Although it protected the colony’s commitment to religious tolerance, it clearly did not separate government from religion.  The charter can indeed be interpreted as suggesting that Rhode Island and Providence Plantations would be a “Christian” colony, albeit one that allowed full freedom for others to worship as they see fit.  That failure to separate government and religion would come back to haunt religious minorities for most of the 18th century. 

This is where Conley falls down on the job, letting his bias against church-state separation color his argument.  His statement that Rhode Island had “more than 300 years of uncontroversial and relatively innocuous contact by religion with the state” is contradicted by the man’s own research!  Precisely because Rhode Island did not have that “wall of separation,” the protestant Christians who ran the government actually wrote religious discrimination into the law books. 

Conley himself has written about this in his study of the 1719 compilation of Rhode Island laws.  The compilation included a provision officially denying the right to vote and hold public office to not only “non-Christians” (meaning primarily the Jewish community of Newport) but to Roman Catholics as well.  This prohibition was in place until after American independence.  Being denied the right to vote and hold office is hardly “innocuous” if you are one of the people being denied those rights!

The Colony’s government and courts drew on that prohibition to help justify their blatantly discriminatory denial of citizenship to Jewish Newporter Aaron Lopez in1761.  Jews were clearly not equal citizens in colonial Rhode Island.  But then, at that time, neither were Catholics.

Another member of Newport’s Jewish community, Moses Michael Hays, stood up to the General Assembly and refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the state that had just declared its independence from Britain.  He refused not because he was against independence (he wasn’t) but because Rhode Island did not treat him as an equal citizen due to his religion.  The treatment that Hays protested in his 1776 public trial was hardly “uncontroversial” and “innocuous”.   

Since “liberty of conscience” was protected by the 1663 charter, people were free to practice whatever religion they wanted in colonial Rhode Island.  They were also free not to practice any religion at all.  Without a wall of separation between church and state, however, the Protestant majority was able to use government to keep religious minorities from enjoying equal civil rights and from having an official voice in the affairs of state. What Rhode Island’s history shows is that religious tolerance alone does not guarantee political rights.

As Conley suggests, Roger Williams believed in church-state separation because he wanted to keep government out of the church.  It wasn’t until Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers decided that a truly democratic society needed to keep the church out of government that we started building the current wall of separation.  Ensuring that the wall remains in place to guarantee equal rights for all is what the Cranston school banner controversy was all about.  (Whether the Woonsocket cross violates the First Amendment is less clear, which is why the Humanists of Rhode Island has not taken a position on that particular matter.  Regardless of its First Amendment status, there were a number of legal issues concerning the cross on Pleasant Valley Parkway.)

While Mr. Conley is right to correct the misperception that colonial Rhode Island had separation of church and state, he does a great disservice by dismissing the mixing of government and religion that followed as “uncontroversial” and “innocuous."  The historical research to which he has contributed shows the discrimination that results when you do not keep church and state separate.

Mr. Conley admonishes those of us who wish to maintain church-state separation to “not use history to validate [our] position.”  If he himself is going to present only half the story - and a biased half at that -- perhaps he should follow his own advice.

Chuck Flippo site manager at Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue National Historic Site and a board member of the Humanists of Rhode Island. The views expressed are entirely his own and not necessarily those of Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue National Historic Site.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Jessica Ahlquist Honored at Touro Synagogue

Note: Today's post was written by Chuck Flippo, site manager at Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue National Historic Site, with small modifications and formatting by Steve Ahlquist.
It sounds like the start of a bad joke: a Rabbi, an Imam, and an atheist walk into a Synagogue... 

In this case, though, it is the story of a ceremony at Touro Synagogue in Newport - the 65th annual reading of George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation. It was a celebration of Washington’s poignant 1790 letter eloquently stating to Newport’s Jewish community (what was left of it after the British occupation of Newport during the Revolution) that the new country would be committed to religious freedom, to being a nation where the government offers “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” To a Jewish community used to being driven violently from country to country (including from England in the 1200's, to be welcomed back somewhat reluctantly generations later,) these words meant that the religious tolerance they had found in colonial Rhode Island would continue in the new United States.

The invocation at Sunday’s reading of the historic letter, given by the Imam of a Providence Muslim community, and the benediction given by Touro Synagogue’s Rabbi, remind of us the breadth of this commitment: that the U. S. would be a country welcoming of Jews and Muslims (“Turks” in Colonial era parlance) as well Christians.

As was noted in the introduction of Jessica Ahlquist, the young atheist who successfully fought for the removal of a prayer banner from Cranston West High School, religious tolerance in Rhode Island applied not only to non-Christians but also to those who did not believe. And there were non-Church goers, and likely non-believers, in Colonial Newport along with Protestants, Jews, the occasional visiting “Turk," and eventually Catholics.

Jessica was there to receive the Judge George Alexander Teitz Award, a non-monetary award from the non-sectarian Touro Synagogue Foundation that is given annually to “an individual or institution that best exemplifies the contemporary commitment to the ideals of religious and ethnic tolerance and freedom, expressed in President George Washington's 1790 Letter.” Jessica joins the likes of the first recipient of the Teitz award, Senator Claiborne Pell.

She was introduced by Judge Teitz’ son, Andy, who reminded the audience of the threats and antagonism Jessica faced in Cranston for standing up for the Constitution and Separation of Church and State. In accepting the award, Jessica made perhaps the most meaningful statement of the afternoon’s proceedings. In talking about her experience with the Cranston school prayer banner, she said, in reference to this event at Touro, "This is what I wanted to happen, this is what I was fighting for when I did this..."

To see Jessica honored by a community that, while largely holding on to its belief in a supernatural “higher being” also sees the importance of Church-State separation, was a moving experience. 
Note: The Providence Journal covered this event with a small selection of photos, completely ignoring the fact that Jessica was honored with a prestigious award at this ceremony. As Chuck told me in correspondence:
[Not mentioning Jessica receiving the award] sounds like a deliberate slight. Though there were certainly other things to write about -- the Imam giving the invocation, Sen. Reed's speech -- the award to Jessica was a significant part of the event. Should have been included. That's really poor journalism.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Conley's analysis stinks in reason’s nostrils

Response to Patrick T. Conley’s editorial of August 13, 2012
Rhode Island never touted freedom from religion"

Patrick T. Conley was wrong in his editorial of August 13 that “Rhode Island never touted freedom from religion." Conley's own citation from Roger Williams, that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” makes the case for freedom from religion as well as anything said by Jefferson. Conley invokes a false antagonism between history and law, misrepresents religious freedom and supports his dubious thesis with examples of vastly unequal relevance. His analysis stinks in reason’s nostrils on par with David Barton’s denial of the Enlightenment.

Although the law is not fashioned without historical perspective, even a historian must concede that the courts are right to defer to law on the role of religion in public schools. Historical precedent prior to the establishment of free public education, the ratification of the 14th Amendment, and the Constitution is not binding. A public school simply cannot declare that it has an official school prayer to a "Heavenly Father" but that people who pray to "Allah" or "Vishnu" or no god at all have equally valid beliefs. Religion X only exists in the space of its freedom FROM Religions Y, Z, and so on. 

Conflating the Cranston West prayer mural, the Woonsocket memorial, and the Pleasant Valley Parkway cross is another major flaw in Conley’s editorial. The Cranston West prayer mural was clearly unconstitutional. The case of the Woonsocket memorial is not as clear, with many atheists and non-religious citizens themselves agreeing that this memorial to specific Christian soldiers does not violate the Constitution. The Pleasant Valley Parkway cross would have been constitutional if the city allowed anyone to adopt a spot and put up their own monument. It would have been a matter of time before a message offensive to the majority ended any such openness.

Conley is a lawyer but fails to address over 50 years of precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court and by the lower courts. He admonishes nonbelievers not to invoke history to support our claims while invoking his authority as "Rhode Island Historian Laureate" to support a reductionist argument unworthy of a public intellectual. Godspeed indeed.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Another letter...

I thoroughly applaud your group's urging of the city to remove the cross. I hope you will start organizing people to put up other symbols on the city land. Starting with a pentagram, I think, would get the point across! 

Good luck to you, hope they city realizes how wrong they are!

A Letter on the Cross in Providence

In response to our letter to Mayor Taveras requesting the removal of an unconstitutional cross on city property, we received the following letter from a sixteen year old. I have withheld the name out of respect for her age.

Dear “Humanists,”
Humanism was defined during the Humanism Movement of Renaissance and in today’s society is defined as “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Humanists support the welfare of humanity. They do not protest and cause a big fuss just because they don’t like how something looks. Humanism is based off of science. You are not using science, you are just whining.
Atheism is the disbelief in a higher power. Only sixteen percent of the entire world is atheist. Take it from a sixteen year old girl who’s been told this multiple times: the world does not revolve around you. To be honest, there is no need for anyone to be offended by a cross or a sign with the word “God” on it. Let me ask you a few questions:
Do people preach at you when you wear atheist symbols? No.
Was this country established because people wanted to be free of religious persecution? Yes.
Is anyone persecuting you because you don’t believe in God? No.
Are these historic statues and signs that you want to take down preaching at you? Not at all.
Let’s be real here. Stop making a fuss and please, just let things be. There is no reason a town should have to remove a historical symbol for you just because it says God on it. The symbol is not telling you that you have to believe in a higher power, it’s simply there because it has always been there.
I’m only sixteen and I’m done listening to this religious war you are trying to start in the United States. And YES, Atheism is a religion whether you would like to admit it or not.
Now, I’m not trying to stir up things. I’m just saying that before you start screaming, again, for people to take things down because they offend you, consider the other people involved. Consider why these things that so terribly offend you were put up and who they are really for.
That banner that you humanists made a school take down was not put up to offend you. It was assembled to symbolize the first graduating class of that school. It again, has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the Cranston High School class of 1963.
What about those veterans that the cross was put up to celebrate them? That cross has nothing to do with you. It’s meant for those veterans, the majority who are religious.
It is one’s choice to practice a religion during adulthood.
Please explain to me how a cross or a banner is hurting anyone.
Thank You,
Name withheld by editor
Humanism is defined in many different ways. Though the definition you provided is fine, I don't think anyone would be satisfied by being limited to the dictionary definition of their beliefs. Can you imagine what would be missing if we limited Judaism or Buddhism to just what is in the dictionary? Entire libraries of books are dedicated to explaining peoples beliefs. A couple of lines from a dictionary could never do them justice.

Humanists do support the well being of humanity, and one of the many ways our group tries to do this is by supporting our Constitutions First Amendment. We believe that religious liberty is of primary importance, and we also believe that the government's role in religion is to have no government role in religion. Allowing religious displays on state owned land mixes church and state, shows favoritism to one particular religion, and makes those that do not believe in that religion feel diminished.

I'm going to assume all the questions you asked and answered are rhetorical, and correct one thing you said. "There is no reason a town should have to remove a historical symbol for you just because it says God on it." The cross in Providence is not historical, in went up within the last couple of months, and was put up in response to the situation in Woonsocket. This is a recent addition to a well maintained median, and really has no place there.

Also, though this has been said many times, atheism is not a religion. It's the absence of religion. Like "off" is a TV channel, or "bald" is a hair color. It should also be noted that we, as a group, don't "whine" or "shout." We explain our position as articulately as we are able, and we ask that the Constitution and the laws of our land be applied fairly.

I appreciate you letter.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Cross in Providence...

In Rhode Island, there's a cross on public land. It's not the one in Woonsocket, it's the one in Providence, on a city owned median strip located at about 14 Pleasant Valley Parkway near the Coca-Cola plant.

The Humanists of Rhode Island sent a letter to Providence Mayor Angel Tavares, asking that the cross be removed, as the presence of a cross on public property violates the First Amendment. Certainly there is no secular purpose for this cross, as is argued in the case of the cross in Woonsocket. No veterans are being honored at this site, the cross exists purely to evangelize Christianity.

Here is the text of the letter sent to Angel Tavares:
Dear Mayor Tavares,

I am writing on behalf of our group, Humanists of Rhode Island, because we assume you are unaware about a cross on publicly owned land in Providence Rhode Island. The cross is located on what we believe to be a city owned median strip located at about 14 Pleasant Valley Parkway near the Coca-Cola plant. I am not of the impression that this cross was erected by anyone acting on the behalf of the City of Providence, or that the cross in any way serves as a marker for an accident victim. This seems to be the construction of a private citizen using public lands to create a permanent fixture for the purpose of proselytizing, and as such is in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which neatly and essentially separates church and state.

I have enclosed several pictures of the cross in question.

Because the United States Constitution requires government to treat all religious viewpoints equally, failure to remove the cross indicates that the City of Providence intends to administer this median as a limited public forum whereby all religiously themed groups will have equal space and access. Should the cross not be removed, Humanists of Rhode Island plans to erect an icon of similar size and visibility on the median, and will vigorously defend other religious groups who wish to do the same.

Naturally, the City will be responsible for ensuring a fair and equal distribution of land area so that no one religion dominates, and for investigating and prosecuting any instances of vandalism that may hinder the free speech and free exercise rights of unpopular religious groups.

However, this solution is not our preference.

We respectfully ask that this cross be removed from public land. We do so as a local group, without the involvement of the ACLU, or the Freedom from Religion Foundation, or any other national group because we feel that as Rhode Islanders that we can deal with this matter “in house” as it were. We do not see the need for making a gigantic case out of this issue. The cross in question was not erected years ago, is not a tribute to fallen soldiers, and is not sanctioned by the city. The removal of this cross should really be no big deal.

Thank you for your attention to this matter and we eagerly await your response,
Steve Ahlquist
President, Humanists of Rhode Island
Here are some additional photos of the cross in question:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chafee urged to veto monument bill: Article in today's ProJo

Humanists of Rhode Island got some coverage in today's Providence Journal in a story about the so-called Monument Bill, and our call, along with the ACLU, for Governor Chafee to veto it.

You can read the story here:

Here's the part particular to our group:
Steve Ahlquist, president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a group that advocated for removing the prayer mural at Cranston High School West’s auditorium earlier this year, added that the bill might have unexpected consequences.

“First, no law enacted at the state level can override our federal, constitutionally protected rights,” he said. “Second, merely declaring that a monument is secular doesn’t make it so any more than declaring a cat is now a cow allows one to milk it.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

Christine Eldridge: Beware psychics' assertions

On June 11, 2011, the Providence Journal ran a very credulous piece on a Psychic Fair in East Providence put on by the First Spiritualist Church of Rhode Island. In response, Christine Eldridge wrote the following letter to the editor:
The very credulous reporting of the local psychic fair, "Good Vibrations:Meeting of the minds at psychic fair" (June 11, news), is irresponsible, potentially dangerous and a disservice to your readers.

There is no scientific evidence of the existence of psychic ability. While it may seem as if the "reader" has uncanny knowledge, it is actually a technique called "cold reading''. Additionally, there is confirmation bias: People tend to remember the "hits" and forget the "misses," especially if they go into a reading wanting to believe.

Far from being lighthearted fun, as the mood of the article suggests, belief in psychics can be very harmful. Psychic scam artists deliberately take advantage of people mourning the loss of a loved one, offering false hope, often at great cost. People have suffered devastating financial losses, and even neglected seeking real medical treatment, resulting in grave illness or death, on the advice of psychics.

Please use critical thinking when reporting on extraordinary claims.

Christine Eldridge
East Providence 
The writer is vice president of Humanists of Rhode Island.
Among the replies to Christine's letter (which only appeared in the online version of the Providence Journal, as nearly as I can tell) was this one from Nathan Horodysky, Secretary of the First Spiritualist Church of Rhode Island:
Hi Christine,

Critical thinking is indeed important which is why before writing this article the reporter attended the event and wrote about the atmosphere he experienced. I would invite you to do the same. Since opening our Spiritualist Church a year ago we have had many people come through the doors and had their lives changed for the better. Did you know that everyone is actually psychic and can connect with the other side if they are open and unafraid? I would love to have you come and attend our church so that we can help you to do the same. I applaud that the Humanists support religious freedom, it is so important to allow everyone to find their own spiritual path. It is also important that in supporting the First Amendment that we do not belittle other people's beliefs. Therefore before attacking the Journal for posting an article I ask you to do your own research and please come down and check out our church. Introduce yourself and we will see that you get a chance to experience a reading for yourself. We welcome you and your beliefs with open arms.

Nathan Horodysky
Secretary, First Spiritualist Church of Rhode Island
I bolded two lines from Nathan's response because I thought they deserved special attention. Both of the lines selected make the kind of extraordinary claims Christine warned about in her letter. I would like to point out that Christine never belittled any person's beliefs. She merely pointed out the lack of evidence supporting psychic powers, and pointed out the many ways in which people have been injured because of their willingness to accept the claims of psychics.

Looking at the website of the First Spiritualist Church of Rhode Island was a little worrying. Christine, in her letter, wrote, "People have... neglected seeking real medical treatment, resulting in grave illness or death, on the advice of psychics." Looking at the site, I see advertised, for donations of $7 or $10, a twice monthly "Holistic Cancer Circle" and a monthly "Evening of Healing." I can only hope the church is not helping people neglect real treatment in favor of feelgood mumbo-jumbo.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Letter to Governor Chafee

Governor Chafee,

The bill being presented to you for your signature, H8143 seeks to make an end run around the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The bill seeks to establish a means by which any public monument can be classified as secular despite any religious meaning or significance that might be attached to it.

I understand that this bill is seeking to protect historical monuments, and specifically the cross currently at issue in Woonsocket, from those who value the separation of church and state, but the bill fails on at least three grounds. First, no law enacted at the state level can override our Federal, constitutionally protected rights. Second, merely declaring that a monument is secular doesn't make it so any more than declaring a cat is now a cow allows one to milk it. Third, poorly thought out bills, such as H8143, may be pleasing to some constituents, but crowd pleasing bills, passed in the heat of the moment, often have unexpected and counter productive consequences.

On behalf of myself and the group I represent, I urge you to veto this bill, fully understanding how politically difficult this might be.


Steve Ahlquist
Humanists of Rhode Island

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Countering the Lies About Religious Freedom in Newport

Suzanne Kane
Across the United States, around noon on Friday June 8th, rallies were held in over 160 cities to oppose President Obama's HHS mandate requiring all employers to "provide free contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs through their health plans." Given that reproductive rights are central to any kind of real health care plan, opposition to such a scheme can only be coming from the hard line anti-abortion religious right. And a quick look at the "blogroll" on the national organization's website quickly confirms this.

In Rhode Island, the event took place in Eisenhower Park in Newport. Organized by Suzanne Kane, the youth pastor of the Lifepath Church of Middletown, RI, the local rally had four adult and two high school aged speakers and lasted about an hour. You can read an interview with Suzanne Kane at about her motivations for holding the rally and some of the details about how she organized it. I tried to be very fair in my interview and gave her plenty of opportunity to express her opinion.

Ten members of the Humanists of Rhode Island showed up to counter protest the rally. We did so with some trepidation, because in interviewing Suzanne Kane, I was informed that the organizers of this event with primarily teens from LPY4life (Lifepath Youth for Life), a youth run pro-life ministry, and I had no desire to protest a youth run and youth attended event. Still, I was not completely convinced by Suzanne's explanation, because she seemed very involved with organizing the rally, and indeed, hen I got there, my suspicions were confirmed. Only two students spoke, no more than five or six students were present, and Suzanne Kane was in charge of the rally and the vast majority of the 85 or so people who showed up to hear the speakers were over the age of fifty.

When our group showed up (five of us drove down from the Providence area and five of us were more local) we were immediately confronted by Suzanne, who asked if we were there to protest the event. I informed her that we were, but that e intended to be very polite, we had no interest in disrupting her rally. We were there to hand out informational fliers and to observe and video the proceedings. She claimed that her permit for the park gave her exclusive use of the park and that we had no right to hold up signs or to speak out during their speeches. This was a curious thing for Suzanne to have said, because in my interview with her I asked:
How many people do you expect to attend this rally, and was any special permitting required by the City of Newport?
 and she answered:
We should expect about 200 people and did not have to have a special permit.
Okay, so maybe she got a regular old permit, not a special one, but my understanding was that no permit was needed, asked for or procured by the rally organizers.

So I set up my camera and stood quietly recording the show while the other members of the group handed out fliers to passers by explaining what REAL religious freedom is. What the controversy over the HHS mandate boils down to is that Catholics, Evangelicals and others across the country want to be able to opt out of the health care system because they are opposed to birth control in all its forms, up to and including abortion. They see freedom of religion and conscience as the freedom to dictate to the government what kind of laws they should and should not pass. This is not freedom, this is theocracy.

Freedom of religion means completely separating church and state, or to paraphrase Jesus, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's." Those speaking at this rally have no real understanding of the importance of this principle, or about the solid legal precedents that have established this principle as one of the bedrocks of our nation.

I f those speaking at the rally had just stayed on the message of theocracy over democracy, it would have been bad enough. But speaker Joe Burke went way off into the weeds with a conspiracy laden rant about Hollywood being controlled by anti-Christian, anti-Jewish "progressive secularists." You can see this part of his speech at the sixteen minute mark in the YouTube video below. The classic crank conspiracist trope of Hollywood being controlled by Jews has been converted into Hollywood being controlled by "progressive secularists" (read this as atheists and humanists). This is not only nutty, it's bigotry, plain and simple.

Later, at about 24 minutes,  speaker named Cathy talks about microchips being forcibly injected to every human o hat the government can keep track of them. And the science is only two week away This idea is expressed without irony, but with extreme paranoia. At 35 minutes, Cathy's mother runs up and starts chastising the people who did not attend the rally, for not showing up. That's right: She was yelling at people who were not there.

Filled with lies, hate, fear and bigotry, the Rally for Religious Freedom exemplified Orwellian Newspeak at its worst. The United States does not need this kind of reactionary political pandering, and when it occurs, it should be opposed, politely and with actual facts.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Stand Up for REAL Religious Freedom


The Humanists of Rhode Island fully support the First Amendment right of religious freedom. Such freedom to worship or not worship, according to one’s beliefs, is guaranteed only by complete separation of church and state.
The "Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally" is not about religious freedom, however it is about the Catholic Church and other religious groups forcing it's religious doctrine on the American people, and in so doing they are reversing needed health care reforms and turning the clock back on women's health care.
The fact that some religious hospitals and universities have already found ways to accommodate new women’s health care requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act shows that the arguments being put forth by organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are about politics, not religious freedom. Georgetown University, DePaul University in Chicago, Boston College, and other Catholic universities, already have insurance programs in place that meet the requirements laid out by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Steps HHS has already taken to balance women’s health care needs with the rights of church-affiliated organizations have satisfied the Catholic Health Association, which made the following statements in a February 10, 2012 press release:

“We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished… The Catholic Health Association remains committed to working with the Administration and others to fully implement the Affordable Care Act to extend comprehensive and quality health care to many who suffer today from the lack of it.”

The attack on the Affordable Care Act by the Catholic bishops and other conservative organizations is at odds with the desires of the very population they are supposed to represent. As the National Catholic Reporter wrote in February, 2012:
“According to a Feb. 7 report from the Public Religion Research Institute, about 6-in-10 Catholics (58 percent) believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception… A majority of Catholics (52 percent) say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide coverage that includes contraception.”
The Reporter also notes that, “Numerous polls show that sexually active Catholics use or have used contraception, perhaps as many as 98 percent.”
In heavily Catholic Rhode Island, a Brown University public opinion survey reported in the Providence Journal shows that, “More than half of Rhode Island voters support President Obama's contraception policy… The poll found that 56.3 percent of those surveyed support the president's revised policy, which requires insurers to offer contraceptive services directly if religious institutions object.”
It is time the Catholic bishops join the American people in recognizing that religious institutions willing to work creatively can balance their religious convictions with the need to ensure that women’s health needs are adequately met. 
Note: You can access the other side of this argument over at Caution Church Ahead. The rally, and a small counter-protest, will take place in Eisenhower Park in Newport Rhode Island at 12 noon on Friday, June 8, 2012.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Clinic Defense May 19, 2012

On Saturday morning, May 19, 2012, Humanists of Rhode Island teamed up with the Rhode Island Anti-Sexism League in a clinic defense, essentially counter-protesting the anti-choice crowd that gathers outside a women's reproductive health care facility every Saturday to intimidate and harass those who need to avail themselves of the services. This was our first time involvement with kind of action and it was quite fun and interesting. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Humanists decry U.S. Appeals Court Decision in Pleau Death Penalty Case, urge appeal

Humanists decry U.S. Appeals Court Decision in Pleau Death Penalty Case, urge appeal

For Immediate Release - Contact Steve Ahlquist (401) 474-9266 or Debbie Flitman (401) 300-4674

(Providence, RI, May 8, 2012)

The Humanists of Rhode Island are proud of theState of Rhode Island's longtime commitment in opposition to the death penalty. As humanists we hold a strong commitment to human rights. Because we place human life at the core of our values we believe that there are far more humane ways to ensure justice than to engage in the practice of capital punishment. It is therefore with great concern that we read of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that seeks to compel Governor Lincoln Chafee to release Jason Wayne Pleau to federal custody where he may face the death penalty for the crimes for which he is accused.

The crime Pleau is accused of is indeed terrible, and our group expresses our condolences to the family and friends of David D. Main, who's life was tragically cut short. In an agreement with the State of Rhode Island, Pleau has agreed to plead guilty to the crime of which he has been accused and spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. This is the greatest penalty possible under our state's law, and though it seems like too little, it must be enough if we are to remain true to our ideals, our heritage and our humanity.

Rhode Island learned of the terrible consequences made possible by the death penalty when the state wrongly executed John Gordon for the murder of Amasa Sprague in 1845. It is now known that John Gordon was innocent, and he was pardoned by the General Assembly and Governor Chafee in 2011, over a century and a half too late. It has since been revealed that John Gordon was targeted because of his Irish-Catholic heritage and the bigotry prevalent at that time.

Humanists of Rhode Island therefore urges Governor Chafee to appeal the Circuit Court ruling to the United States Supreme Court. In this way our state can demonstrate our commitment to justice and human life, and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.


For more information contact:

Steve Ahlquist
Humanists of Rhode Island
(401) 474-9266
[email protected]

Debbie Flitman
Media relations
Humanists of Rhode Island
(401) 300-4674
[email protected]

Humanism is a non-theistic philosophy based on reason, compassion, optimism and action. Humanists of Rhode Island was formed in April 2011 with the intention of demonstrating these values through volunteerism and service work.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The National Day of Fear and Desperation

The National Day of Fear and Desperation

Steve Ahlquist's post over at Rhode Island Future sharing his thoughts on the National Day of Prayer.

It All Comes Down to Religion «

It All Comes Down to Religion «

Our friend and new member Nancy wrote this post on the Marriage equality hearings at the State House last night. She mentions Humanists of Rhode Island's own Kelly Reid as having given stirring and funny testimony. I expected nothing less from Kelly.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Woonsocket Cross

Though the Humanists of Rhode Island have, as a group, taken no position on the recent case in Woonsocket of a memorial cross on public lands and the subsequent call for its removal by the FFRF, individual members within our group represent a wide range of opinions on the subject. One of the most erudite and nuanced views comes from William Santagata, who wrote the following letter to Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine. Agree or disagree, I think you will find that William's thoughts are worth your time.

Dear Mayor Fontaine,

As a citizen of Rhode Island with a keen interest in Establishment Clause jurisprudence, I am writing to urge you to keep the cross memorial as-is in front of the Woonsocket Fire Sta­tion. As this complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation comes on the heels of the Cranston School Prayer Banner case, it is no surprise that the Rhode Island community will make comparisons between the two displays. While I believed strongly that that the Prayer Ban­ner was unconstitutional and advocated earnestly for its removal, I also believe that, due to the factual differences between these cases (namely that the Prayer Banner was in a public school, a setting that carries a different and stricter Establishment Clause case law), a comparison between the two is not apt and that the City of Woonsocket would be successful in any suit lodged against it.

The monument in this matter falls within the grey area of the Establishment Clause that is described by Justice Breyer in his concurring opinion in Van Orden v. Perry 545 U.S. 677 2005, which upheld a 10 Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. While “the government must avoid excessive interference with, or promotion of, religion […] the Establishment Clause does not compel the government to purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes of the religious. Such absolutism is not only inconsistent with our national traditions, but would also tend to promote the kind of social conflict the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid” (id., internal citations omitted). The factual record particular to this monument aligns closely with the Van Orden standard and this case would play a key role should the City decide to stand its ground and preserve this historical marker.

“Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doc­trine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause” Van Orden; rather, the alleged constitu­tional infraction must be viewed through the eyes of the reasonable observer, a fictional person­age who “is the personification of a community ideal of reasonable behavior, determined by the collective social judgment, whose knowledge is not limited to information gleaned from viewing the challenged display, but extends to the general history of the place in which the display ap­pears” Capitol Square Review Blvd. v. Pinette 515 U.S. 753 (1995). The reasonable observer here would see the monument knowing that it is nearly a century old, that it was erected in honor of Mr. William Jolicoeur who was killed in battle during World War I, that Mr. Jolicoeur was a member of the American Expeditionary Forces, and that “Historians and veterans regard the marker as a living link to Europe’s allies, especially France. At the close of World War I, Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, a Frenchman often called Europe’s counterpart to General Dwight Eisenhower, traveled to Woonsocket to dedicate the stone” (The Call, “Cross in Group’s Crosshairs,” 23 April 2012) and that the cross memorializ­ing his death accords with his faith. In his Van Orden concurrence, Justice Breyer noted that “fo­cusing on the text of the Commandments alone cannot conclusively resolve this case. Rather, to determine the message that the text here conveys, we must examine how the text is used. And that inquiry requires us to consider the context of the display” id. (BREYER, concurring). Seeing the cross alone outside of the corresponding monument on which it rests would be to ignore the guidance of the Supreme Court. The reasonable observer would see the cross and monument to­gether as an honorable tribute to a specific Woonsocket citizen in keeping with his religious be­liefs, not as a coercive message by a government intent on endorsing the Christian religion above all others. Additionally, in coming to his decision, Justice Breyer considered the environment in which the stone tablet was placed: “The physical setting of the monument, moreover, suggests little or nothing of the sacred. […] The setting does not readily lend itself to meditation or any other religious activity” id. Nor does the parking lot of a fire station.

While the age of a monument or practice cannot in and of itself cure what would other­wise be a constitutional infraction, it can still nonetheless be a vital factor in determining its con­stitutionality. “Standing alone, historical patterns cannot justify contemporary violations of con­stitutional guarantees, but there is far more here than simply historical patterns.” Marsh v. Cham­bers 463 U.S. 783 (1983). As Justice Breyer found regarding the Van Orden monument, “This dis­play has stood apparently uncontested for nearly two generations. That experience helps us un­derstand that as a practical matter of degree this display is unlikely to prove divisive. And this matter of degree is, I believe, critical in a borderline case such as this one” Van Orden (BREYER, concurring). The 10 Commandments tablet in question stood for 40 years before a suit was filed; the Woonsocket memorial has stood for 91. “Those [91] years suggest more strongly than can any set of formulaic tests that few individuals, whatever their belief systems, are likely to have under­stood the monument as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to establish religion” id. The passage of time could not forgive an overtly coercive message by the government such as a banner entreating schoolchildren to pray to a “Heavenly Father.” But in regards to religious displays that have additional layers of meaning, such as the 10 Command­ments (with its place within the context of the history of law and governance) or this memorial (the cross not serving a principal purpose of endorsing Christianity but of honoring a specific Christian soldier dear to this community), “those 40 years [regarding the 10 Commandments monument] suggest that the public visiting the capitol grounds has considered the religious as­pect of the tablets’ message as part of what is a broader moral and historical message reflective of a cultural heritage” id. After 91 years, it is therefore this “broader moral and historical message” that dominates rather than a context of endorsing Christianity as the City’s preferred religion that one may glean from only a cursory viewing of the monument. The argument of the Freedom From Religion Foundation “fundamentally misunderstands the way monuments convey meaning. The meaning conveyed by a monument is not generally a simple one like ‘Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.’ Even when a monument features the written word, the monument may be intended to be interpreted, and may in fact be interpreted, by different observers, in a variety of ways” Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum 555 U.S. 460 (2009) (internal citations omitted). To allow com­plainant’s simplistic interpretation of the monument (presumably: “Jesus: It’s what’s best for you.”) to dominate and control public policy would be to allow a “heckler’s veto,” whereby “an unwarranted extension of the Establishment Clause, an extension which would have the unfortu­nate effect of prohibiting a commendable patriotic observance,” would prevail. Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow 542 U.S. 1 (2004) (O’CONNOR, concurring).

In Salazar v. Buono 559 U.S. ___ (2010), the Supreme Court reversed a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals holding that a land-transfer statute passed by Congress to preserve a cross on federal property in the Mojave Desert was devoid of a secular basis and thus violative of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court, in remanding to the District Court with in­struction to conduct a fact-finding inquiry in regards to the land transfer arrangement, expressed concern with the lower courts’ hastiness to label the cross as purely a government endorsement of Christianity. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, chastises the District Court:
By dismissing Congress’s motives as illicit, the District Court took insufficient account of the context in which the statute was enacted and the reasons for its passage. Private citizens put the cross on Sunrise Rock to commemorate American servicemen who had died in World War I. Although certainly a Christian sym­bol, the cross was not emplaced on Sunrise Rock to promote a Christian message. Placement of the cross on Government-owned land was not an attempt to set the imprimatur of the state on a particular creed. Rather, those who erected the cross intended simply to honor our Nation’s fallen soldiers. id. (internal cita­tions omitted).
Similarly, the cross erected in front of the Woonsocket Fire Station was not “emplaced […] to promote a Christian message” but rather to honor a specific member of the community killed during World War I with respect to that person’s personal religious beliefs. Had Mr. Jolicoeur been Jewish, for example, and the City had tried to re-brand his memory as Christian, this action could be taken as illegal disapproval on behalf of the City for Judaism with accompanying favori­tivism for Christianity. But this is not the case. Had the City erected a cross to memorialize all war dead regardless of their religious beliefs, this issue would be thornier (although still possibly winnable for the City). But again, this not the case. At one time, the City re-dedicated the me­morial to honor the memory of three brothers killed in World War II. If the City were to make a habit of rededicating the monument whenever a Christian solider from the community died, ig­noring Woonsocket soldiers of other religions, this would be seen as impermissible government endorsement of Christianity. But in having selected these four individuals to commemorate, the City did not necessarily show pro-Christian bias. Perhaps these four people had made particular contributions to Woonsocket in the past, or perhaps they were simply well-loved by their fellow Woonsocket citizens. Whatever the reason, the City did not create a constitutional issue in se­lecting certain people to memorialize but not others, for “a government entity has the right to ‘speak for itself ’ [and] ‘it is entitled to say what it wishes,’” so long of course, that it “comport[s] with the Establishment Clause” Pleasant Grove City (internal citations omitted).

Furthermore, throughout the majority decision and Justice Alito’s concurrence in Buono, the Court appears to be itching to declare the cross itself—not merely the land-transfer stat­ute—constitutional under the Van Orden standard, an action precluded by the federal govern­ment’s decision to decline to petition for review by the Supreme Court on that matter. Justice Kennedy continues to upbraid the District Court in finding that it
concentrated solely on the religious aspects of the cross, divorced from its background and context. But a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thou­sands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten. id.
Justice Alito chimes in, arguing that:
The cross is of course the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and Easter services have long been held on Sunrise Rock. But, as noted, the original reason for the placement of the cross was to commemorate Ameri­can war dead and, particularly for those with searing memories of The Great War, the symbol that was se­lected, a plain unadorned white cross, no doubt evoked the unforgettable image of the white crosses, row on row, that marked the final resting places of so many American soldiers who fell in that conflict. […] If Congress had done nothing, the Government would have been required to take down the cross, which had stood on Sunrise Rock for nearly 70 years, and this removal would have been viewed by many as a sign of disrespect for the brave soldiers whom the cross was meant to honor. The demolition of this venerable if unsophisticated, monument would also have been interpreted by some as an arresting symbol of a Government that is not neutral but hostile on matters of religion and is bent on eliminating from all public places and symbols any trace of our country’s religious heritage. id. (ALITO, concurring).
Not only was the original reason for the placement of this cross to commemorate war dead, but to commemorate a specific soldier killed in World War I whose religion is easily verifiable. To re­move this monument, whose primary purpose cannot be shown to promote Christianity to other people, 91 years after the fact, would be to show the callous hostility to “our country’s religious heritage” that the Supreme Court frowns upon.

There are, however, key factual differences between this and the Van Orden and Buono cases that need be addressed. In the Van Orden case, the 10 Commandments monument was do­nated by a private party whose contribution was clearly credited on the display, and was sur­rounded by various monuments donated by other groups that were accepted by the State of Texas on a religion-neutral basis. In the Buono case, the cross in question was erected by a group of pri­vate citizens. But this is not to say that the government can wash its hands of any illegal en­dorsement simply by turning a blind eye to residents who take it upon themselves to put up per­manent religious monuments on government property. The government is accountable for the content of the monuments on its grounds:

Just as government-commissioned and government-financed monuments speak for the government, so do privately financed and donated monuments that the government accepts and displays to the public on government land. It certainly is not common for property owners to open up their property for the installa­tion of permanent monuments that convey a message with which they do not wish to be associated. And because property owners typically do not permit the construction of such monuments on their land, persons who observe donated monuments routinely—and reasonably—interpret them as conveying some message on the property owner’s behalf. Pleasant Grove City.

That the Supreme Court upheld the 10 Commandments monument in Van Orden and appeared inclined to uphold the land transfer in Buono (an action which cannot ipso facto immunize an otherwise unconstitutional display), shows that the fact that private citizens contributed the De­calogue or cross did not dispositively determine the outcomes of these cases. Another difference is that in the Buono case, as stated above, Congress transferred the property containing the cross to private hands during the proceedings of that lawsuit. On the constitutionality of the cross itself as it stood on federally owned land, the 9th Circuit had the final word in finding the cross unconsti­tutional, because, as previously noted, the federal government did not pursue an appeal to the Su­preme Court on that matter. However, the Supreme Court appears extremely critical of that deci­sion and 9th Circuit decisions also set no binding precedent on Rhode Island, which is served by the 1st Circuit.

At first glance, this matter may seem similar to the circumstances surrounding the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in American Atheists v. Utah Highway Patrol Association which held unconstitutional a series of roadside crosses to honor individual fallen state troopers. This decision sets no binding precedent in Rhode Island and should not even be considered influential on these proceedings. In this case, the State of Utah did not take into consideration the religious beliefs of the deceased troopers, but rather memorialized each of them with a cross with no pol­icy in place to accommodate fallen troopers of other religions. In addition, the crosses were much larger and more obtrusive (being 12 feet tall), creating a chilling and alienating atmosphere for non-Christian residents who had to drive past cross after cross on their public highways. Plain­tiffs also took quick action against the crosses: the community did not wait nearly a century to go by before mounting a challenge to them. The crosses thus did not have the historical significance that the Woonsocket monument possesses. As Justice Breyer clarifies in his Van Orden concur­rence, comparing his decision to uphold that older monument while simultaneously deciding to strike down a newer 10 Commandments monument elsewhere: “in today’s world, in a Nation of so many different religious and comparable nonreligious fundamental beliefs, a more contem­porary state effort to focus attention upon a religious text is certainly likely to prove divisive in a way that this longstanding, pre-existing monument has not” Van Orden (BREYER, concurring).

In short, this matter is worth pursuing. This monument is 91 years old. It asks no one to subscribe to any religious belief or participate in any religious activity. It shows no endorsement of religion, nor preference for religion over non-religion, as it sends no religious message other than the fact that the person it memorializes was Christian. Any interpretation of the monument that isolates the cross from the rest of the memorial does not place the display in its proper cul­tural and historic setting and thus will not be considered by a court of law. Removing this war monument now, nearly a century after its erection “could thereby create the very kind of relig­iously based divisiveness that the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid” Van Orden (BREYER, con­curring). The separation of church and state is a principle that is fundamental to the fabric of our country, and a principle for which I have the utmost respect and admiration. I do not support the preservation of this monument despite the Establishment Clause, but rather because I do not see this as an Establishment Clause violation at all. “I recognize the danger of the slippery slope. Still, where the Establishment Clause is at issue, we must ‘distinguish between real threat and mere shadow.’ Here, we have only the shadow” id. (internal citations omitted).

The cross should stay.