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Rhode Island Will Decide Which Public Religious Icons Are Sufficiently Secular

Lawmakers create commission in response to WWI memorial cross that has split atheist groups.

Rhode Island lawmakers hope to avoid future litigation over religious icons on public property by creating a commission to catalogue public icons that have lost their religious significance.

House Bill 8143 Sub A, which passed into law last week without Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee's signature, gives the green light for creation of the "Category One Memorial Designation Commission" to identify and protect properties with "secular traditional, cultural, or community recognition and/or value."

The legislation was crafted in response to recent controversy over a white memorial cross on display in front of the Woonsocket Fire Department headquarters (pictured above). The cross faces potential litigation and will likely be moved.

Last month, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Woonsocket mayor Leo Fontaine arguing that the cross, erected in 1921 as a World War I memorial, violates the separation of church and state since it is located on city property.

City council president John Ward told the Associated Press that he believes the cross is more of a historical symbol, but the city can't afford a lawsuit. So the cross may be moved to a more prominent location on private property.

However, a Rhode Island atheist group says the cross ought to stay. Jason LaRose, a Woonsocket resident and the co-founder of Ocean State Atheists, told WJAR news the cross "only represents the soldiers who were killed, who were most likely Catholics."

Gov. Chaffee said the bill does not change the fact that it is up to the courts to decide whether any particular monument violates Establishment Clause restrictions.

CT has spotlighted Supreme Court tussles over public crosses, as well as debate over whether memorial crosses should be considered secular.

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