A New Jersey fire department has agreed to stop transporting a nine-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary to local churches after receiving a complaint from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Americans United received calls from area residents after media accounts detailed how members of the Jackson Mills Fire Company transported the statue, known as “Our Lady of America, the Immaculate Virgin,” to New York City for a Sept. 11 observance and then to a church in Howell, N.J.
In New York, the firefighters, dressed in their official uniforms, carried the statue into the Church of St. Peter and helped install it near the altar. In Howell, the firefighters transported the statue to St. Veronica’s Roman Catholic Church and used a fire truck, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, as part of a processional that culminated in the parking lot of the church.
The motorcade also included fire trucks from nearby Jackson Township and police vehicles. The firefighters then joined members of the Knights of Columbus in carrying the statue into the church, and the event concluded with a special mass.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said private vehicles should have been used to transport the religious icon.
“Have these guys never heard of U-Haul?” Lynn asked in a press statement. “The use of this statue for worship is a purely religious matter and should be handled through private channels. No arm of the government need be involved.”
Lynn pointed out that the statue, which is touring the country, was transported from its home in St. Louis by a volunteer driver with a private vehicle. The same policy should have been followed in New Jersey, he said.
In a Sept. 26 letter to Jackson Fire Chief Mike Lubertazzi, Americans United attorneys pointed out that the activity surrounding the statue is wholly religious and should not be aided, endorsed or promoted by units of government.
AU also rejected claims that the firefighters engaged in these actions during their free time, noting that they used official vehicles and wore their uniforms.
“The fire company’s actions also conveyed an unmistakable message of religious endorsement generally, and endorsement of the Catholic faith in particular,” AU attorneys Alex Luchenitser and Heather Weaver wrote to Lubertazzi. “Firefighters not only transported the religious statue to New York City in official department vehicles, but they also donned their official department uniforms, including their fire-department badges, while doing so. As members of the public stood by to watch, the firefighters helped carry the statue into St. Peter’s, where they installed it in the church’s sanctuary, smiling and posing for photographs afterward.”
Noting the similar activity in Howell, the letter asserted, “A reasonable observer would perceive that the fire company has placed its imprimatur on the ‘Our Lady of America’ statue…. Indeed, the department appears to have become a de facto cosponsor of the statue’s tour of the New York and New Jersey region.”
After receiving the letter, Lubertazzi and his attorney called and assured AU’s attorneys that the department would stop toting the statue.
The statue’s travels are sponsored by a group called the Our Lady of America Center. The organization based the statue on appearances of the Virgin Mary claimed by an Ohio nun, Sister Mary Ephrem, who died in 2000.
The nun claimed she started receiving visions of the Virgin Mary in 1956. Her followers believe that if the statue is installed at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the country will be protected from evil.