Who's Got the Law Right in Woonsocket?

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has caused quite a stir with its demand that the city of Woonsocket take down a World War I and World War II memorial, featuring a cross, on city land.

Public opinion in Rhode Island is clearly pro-monument. And every pol who can plausibly lay claim to the case - from Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin - is wrapping himself in the cloak of the Good Lord.

But do they have a legal leg to stand on? Isn't a cross on city land a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion?"

Well, maybe not.

The Supreme Court's rulings on religious displays are about as confusing as the Providence City Council's position on pension reform.

In one case, the court ruled that recently placed Ten Commandment displays in courthouses in two Kentucky counties were unconstitutional because a "reasonable observer" would conclude that authorities intended to highlight the religious nature of the commandments. But in another case, the court found that a Ten Commandments display that had stood on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol for some 40 years was A-OK because a reasonable observer would not find it predominately religious.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, attempting to explain the dominant view on the court in a 2007 report, came up with this: "a religious display placed in a public space violates the Establishment Clause only when it conveys the message that the government is endorsing a religious truth, such as the divinity of Jesus."

Supporters of the Woonsocket memorial, then, would seem to have a reasonably good case; the display goes back some time and seems to be more concerned with honoring the dead than endorsing some religious truth.

And the Supreme Court, of course, has only turned more conservative since its last major ruling on public religious displays.

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