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Lawmakers mull protection of memorials

May 9, 2012

PROVIDENCE – Local lawmakers are rallying to the defense of Woonsocket’s Place Jolicoeur war memorial with legislation to protect it and similar monuments from state constitutional challenges and defend it against federal constitutional challenges.
Rep. James McLaughlin, a Democrat whose district covers parts of Cumberland and Central Falls, introduced a bill in the House yesterday that will allow any elected state or municipal official to designate any “structure, sculpture, inscription or icon” as a “category one” memorial.
That designation means that the memorial item “shall not be deemed or viewed as the making of a law regarding the establishment of a state religion.”
Additionally, the bill asserts that, “it shall be the policy of the state to defend against any non-governmental challenge to the placement or continued existence of any category one memorial item on any state or municipal property.”
It directs the state attorney general or his designee to carry out the legal defense of such memorials and establishes a $1 million special fund “to provide for the defense of and/or challenges to designation of items as category one memorial items.
The intent, McLaughlin said, is to protect “monuments and artifacts of any historical significance or value” and keep them intact in the cities and towns where they are located.
Such objects, he said, “tells the story of the history” of particular events and times in the state or its individual communities, as the Woonsocket memorial commemorates the local soldiers who died in the world wars.
He said many such monuments can bear a cross or a Star of David or a crescent relating to the Muslim religion, but that does not diminish their historical significance. “It is an historical document,” McLaughlin contends.
“How can you rule an historic document unconstitutional?”
South Kingstown Rep. Spencer Dickinson, a co-sponsor, said the bill “is the state stating it is standing behind these monuments and putting money behind them to go with it – they are traditional, they are cultural, they are historical.”
To qualify as a category one memorial, an item must meet the following criteria: It must have attained a secular traditional, cultural or community recognition or value; it must be on property owned by the state or a city or town; it may, but need not be, related to military affairs, and it must have been in existence prior to January 1, 2012.
Also, having a “recognizable identification with a known or established religion,” does not exclude an object from being designated as a category one memorial.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has challenged the Place Jolicoeur monument because it bears a Latin Cross atop a stone with a plaque recognizing the sacrifice of William Jolicoeur, a soldier who was killed in World War I and three brothers, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, who all died in battle during World War II.
In a letter to Mayor Leo Fontaine, the group demanded that the cross be removed from the site, which is on city land in what has become a fire station parking lot.
In response, about 1,000 people gathered at the site last week to demand that the monument be kept as it is, where it is. Since then, there has been no official reaction from the FFRF.
Besides McLaughlin and Dickinson, representatives co-sponsoring the measure include Cumberland Rep. Karen MacBeth, Woonsocket Reps. Jon Brien, Robert Phillips and Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Lincoln Rep. Rene Menard.
McLaughlin said the bill will be referred to the House Municipal Government Committee, which is chaired by Brien. So far, no companion bill has been introduce in the Senate.


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