Left Behind In Albia: Iowa Town Tries To Defend Cross-Filled Memorial

Late last month, attorneys at Americans United sent a letter to officials in the small town of Albia, Iowa.

We got word that county and city officials there had earmarked tax funds and provided public land for a war memorial whose central feature is a row of 21 crosses. AU attorneys wanted to let them know that this wasn’t such a good idea.

We had hoped to resolve this matter in private, outside of the glare of the media spotlight, but someone in town gave our letter to the local newspaper, the Union-Republican.

Actually, I hesitate to use the word “newspaper” here. Newspapers are generally unbiased and objective. A fundamental tenet of journalism is that you seek to report both sides. The Union-Republican appears to be Fox News in print. The stories have been one-sided, and no one at the paper has bothered to call to get AU’s perspective.

On Friday, the paper’s editor and publisher, Dave Paxton, wrote another “news” story about recent developments and followed that up with an opinion column.

Paxton’s column has some problems. For starters, much of it is just name calling. He refers to Americans United as a “meddling quasi atheistic group of knuckledraggers bent on rewriting the U.S. Constitution, which says clearly ‘Congress shall make no law infringing on the right to practice religion.’ It doesn’t say anything about protecting government from the church.”

I won’t dwell on the fact that “knuckle draggers” should be two words and that “quasi-atheistic” needs a hyphen. The more important issue is Paxton’s attempt to rewrite the First Amendment. It’s not hard to find out what the First Amendment’s religion clauses actually say. We have this thing called the internet. It’s useful. You can use it to learn things – such as the real wording of the religion clauses: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

From there Paxton asserts, “If the morons in UA and the anonymous person who complained about the crosses, [sic] knew anything about the memorial, they would know it is designed to mirror Arlington and the Vietnam Wall. A replica of the Iwo Jima monument on the Washington, D.C. Mall is next up.”

UA? As far as I know, United Artists hasn’t weighed in on this matter. But let’s consider the crux of Paxton’s argument: A park containing a bunch of crosses on public land is meant to mirror Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Memorial.

If the city leaders of Albia intended to mimic these sites, they failed badly. I realize that not everyone can travel to the Washington, D.C., area to personally visit these places, but there are plenty of pictures of them in books and online.

Arlington National Cemetery consists of a series of headstones. The families of deceased soldiers get to decide what religious (or non-religious) symbol is engraved on the headstone of their fallen loved one. Several types of Christian crosses are offered, but there are symbols for Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, humanism, etc. The federal government would never presume to use a cross to represent everyone.

The Vietnam memorial is a black granite wall. As the National Park Service’s website notes, “The memorial includes the names of over 58,000 servicemen and women who gave their lives in service in the Vietnam Conflict. The memorial also includes ‘The Three Servicemen’ statue and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.” There are no government-erected crosses at the site.

A replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.: No government crosses here. (Source: Wikimedia)

The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, often informally called the “Iwo Jima memorial,” is an iconic image that depicts a flag-raising on Iwo Jima during World War II. This memorial also does not include any crosses. (It's also not on the National Mall.)

Paxton also asserts that “the cross is a symbol of Christ’s agonizing death and his resurrection. To be sure, it is a religious symbol of the hope of heaven when placed next to a grave. But it is not particularly a religious symbol when used to honor veterans.”

This is a perfect example of someone who is so subsumed in Christian privilege that he can’t even fathom what it’s like to be on the outside. The fact is, the cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity. It memorializes Christians. If it also memorialized Jews, you would see it in Jewish cemeteries. You don’t, because it doesn’t represent Jews. It is certainly not a secular symbol, as many Christians will be the first to admit.

It probably never occurred to Paxton how an atheist, a Hindu or a Muslim feels about being “memorialized” with a symbol from someone else’s religion. That attitude is typical of those who, because they are in the majority, just assume that something that didn’t offend them can’t possibly bother anyone else.

And that is perhaps the most offensive thing about this whole affair: Paxton and the rest of the people in Albia who are throwing a tantrum claim they want to honor their war dead – then they proceed to honor only some of them.

If the town of Albia is serious about remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice, it will create a memorial that truly mirrors the ones in Washington, D.C., by making it secular and inclusive.  If the town doesn’t wish to do so, the memorial must not sit on public land and must not receive any taxpayer support.