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Hundreds gather to defend Woonsocket memorial

By Erika Niedowski
Associated Press / May 2, 2012
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WOONSOCKET, R.I.—An estimated 1,500 people -- many of them veterans -- turned out Wednesday in the Rhode Island city of Woonsocket to defend a war memorial topped with a cross whose constitutionality is being challenged by an atheist group.

Speaking before a crowd of people bearing crosses of their own and signs including one that warned "Don't Cross God," Mayor Leo Fontaine said he has a new resolve to fight to keep the monument where it is -- on city property, in the parking lot of the fire department.

He and others stressed that the 1921 monument isn't about religion, or forcing it on anyone, but rather honoring four local residents killed in World Wars I and II, including three brothers -- Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne. He urged those in the crowd to donate to a legal defense fund the city has set up in case there is a legal challenge; firefighters canvassed the crowd seeking to fill their boots with contributions.

"If Mrs. Gagne can give her three sons," Fontaine said, "I can give a fight for her sons' monument."

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has called for the cross or the monument to be taken down, saying it violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. The group said it complained to the city after receiving a complaint from a local resident who is not Christian and who is offended by the cross.

The rally -- with WPRO talk radio host John DePetro as emcee -- stretched over an hour and a half and featured patriotic songs and a range of speakers. Among them was the head of Rhode Island's Catholics, Bishop Thomas Tobin, who warned against a godless society that would be "sterile" and "devoid of moral values."

Fontaine estimated that the crowd contained about 1,500 people.

A seventh-grader from a local school told the crowd she didn't know much about the separation of church and state, but she did know right from wrong -- and thinks the monument should stay.

Portsmouth resident Angie Isadore was sitting in the crowd in a folding chair, holding a sign about the freedom of religion. Her husband, who also attended the rally, served in Vietnam, and her father served in World War II.

"It's about standing up for what's right," she said of her decision to take part. "It's about our freedoms. They're being taken away from us."

Major Gen. Reginald Centracchio, the former head of the Rhode Island National Guard, organized the rally because he saw the atheist group's challenge as an attack on veterans. He said whoever is offended doesn't have to look at the cross when they drive by.

"That monument stays where it is, how it is," he said, to cheers.

"There's no negotiation."

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said her group's complaint has nothing to do with veterans, but rather the Constitution.

"The law is on our side," she told The Associated Press. "We are not against veterans in any way. It isn't necessary to honor veterans with a cross on public property."

She added: "I think that reason is not prevailing right now. This is a lot of blowhards and emotion. Maybe they'll get it out of their system."

Fontaine recently called the group a "couple of knuckleheads," while state Rep. James McLaughlin said this week on the House floor that the cross's critics are "pinheads."

Rhode Island's attorney general on Wednesday also waded into the fray, issuing a statement in which he defended the monument.

"This monument transcends religion and the call to remove it is an affront to all veterans," Peter Kilmartin said. "Our national cemeteries are filled with grave markers including the cross and the Star of David. Should they be removed also?"

Gaylor stressed that the group is not preparing legal action. She said she expects to prevail without the type of long court battle that unfolded over a prayer banner ordered removed this year from a public high school in Cranston.

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