Group Contends Display In Front Of Library Is Unconstitutional

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Published: August 11, 2016 @ 2:18 PM EDT

A letter sent by the Apagnani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC), the legal division of the American Humanist Association (AHA) (link), has sent Roselle Park Mayor Carl Hokanson a 10-page letter regarding a silhouette display of a soldier kneeling before a Christian cross in front of the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library. The group is asking the municipality to remove the display from the library.

The communiqué, titled ‘Unconstitutional Cross’, is also on the organization’s website and highlights the chain of events that started on July 29th when, reportedly, Mayor Hokanson donated the display to the library. AHA contends that even though it was “apparently intended as a recognition of fallen military personnel, the display favors and endorses Christianity by suggesting that the government honors the service and sacrifice of Christian soldiers to the exclusion of others.”

It is the cross – as opposed to a generic grave marker – that AHA finds to be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Mayor Carl Hokanson, when reached for a comment, stated that he did not yet read the letter but was notified that the Library Board of Trustees President Patricia Butler was in receipt of it and had forwarded it to the Borough Attorney, Richard Huxford. The mayor had no further comment at this time.

David Niose (pronounced Nē-ō’-sē), the legal director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, was contacted for this article. He stated, “We have no problem with honoring soldiers and veterans. That’s perfectly fine but it has to be done in a religiously neutral manner. If you go to Arlington National Cemetery, the gravestones are rectangular and then each individual soldier’s religious symbol will be on that square but the idea of a cross being the universal symbol for fallen soldiers is a fallacy.”

Mr. Niose went on to say that Jewish soldiers, Muslim soldiers, atheist soldiers, or Hindu soldiers would not want a Christian cross as their marker.

In turn, it could be argued that a Christian soldier would not want the atheist symbol (atheist symbol) or a Wicca symbol (wicca symbol) or any other religious symbol on their gravestone or to have that particular symbol be representative of all military personnel or to have that symbol be the only one on the library lawn.

“Our real point is that there are plenty of ways of honoring soldiers without using the symbol of one religious group,” stated Mr. Niose.

It has been confirmed and acknowledged that the resident who reached out to Mayor Hokanson – referred to in AHLC’s letter – is Gregory Storey, the husband of Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey. Although not alone in his concern regarding the display, as at least one other resident publicly asked about the symbolism and intent of it, Mr. Storey did send the mayor a letter requesting to have the display removed. Here is a copy of the letter:

Download File (PDF)

In the letter Mr. Storey stated that the Library Board had not formally authorized such a display. To this end, the more important issue appears to be the lack of protocol, either with the Library Board of Trustees or the municipality, regarding the acceptance of donations made to the library or on library grounds.

Earlier this year, book houses were donated to the library apparently from Union County and initially installed on library lawn by the vendor who maintains the library grounds then moved by the Department of Public Works (DPW) – all without any formal resolution made by either the Library Board or the governing body. In that case, taxpayer money was used to construct, install, and move a donation without any of it being formally approved or put on the record. If, according to Mr. Storey in his statement that the display being installed with taxpayer money “compounds the situation”, then the same should apply for donations such as the book houses which were paid for by taxpayer dollars without any formal oversight or approval.

The other question that arises out of this latest donation is whether the Library Board or Library Director have the authority to approve such donations if they are outside on the library grounds which, some would argue, is municipal public property. If such is the case, then a formal resolution for the donated benches, the donated book houses, and the donated display should have been voted on by council, as it has been stated that donations made to the municipality require a formal resolution. Now, with the allegation that no one on the Library Board or governing body knew of this latest donation, the danger exists of anyone asking just one person for permission to have a display and then it being put up without oversight or some sort of community consensus or knowledge.

The next Mayor & Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday, August 18, at the Roselle Park Municipal Complex. The next scheduled Library Board meeting is set for Wednesday, September 21st, at the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library located at 404 Chestnut Street.

A copy of the letter sent by AHLC is available below for review/download/print:

Download File (PDF)