R.I. Mayor Resists Atheists' Calls to Remove Cross

The mayor of a Rhode Island city has promised to defend a 91-year-old war memorial featuring a Latin cross and other religious symbols, which a national atheist group says must be removed from the monument.

Leo Fontaine, the mayor of the city of Woonsocket, R.I., has assured residents that he will fight the calls being made by the Freedom from Religion Foundation to bring down a memorial carrying a cross and a prayer, and situated in the parking lot of the Woonsocket fire station.

The monument, which honors hometown soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice defending their country during World War I and II, is a symbol of the community, Fontaine says.

"We will defend this monument no matter what," he told on Friday. He said the city is prepared to fight to keep the monument where it stands.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which "works to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state," claims the religious symbols at the memorial violate the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause.

"We ask that you immediately remove the cross from the Fire Station parking lot and remove the prayer and angel from the Woonsocket Fire Department website," the Wisconsin-based group's senior staff attorney, Rebecca Market, wrote in a letter to Woonsocket officials earlier this year.

The group says it has taken up the issue on behalf of a city resident who drives by the statue daily and finds it offensive.

The monument and its symbols mean so much to the resident that they have rallied to raise $18,500 for a defense fund should the atheist group decide to file a lawsuit. The city is currently facing the possibility of bankruptcy.

"If the unnamed person ever came forward what I would like to do is introduce him to the family members of William Jolicoeur, who this monument is originally dedicated to, and the story of the three Gagne brothers and their mother Bernadette that lost all three sons in the war," Fontaine earlier said, referring to the city resident the atheist group is citing. "Hopefully make him understand what this monument is all about. I think many people having learned this story came away with a new appreciation for the monument and I hope this would be the same case for that person, if that person exists," WPRO News quoted him as saying.

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