How Long Should a Family’s Roadside Cross in Memory of Their Son Be Allowed to Stay Up?

In May of 2012, 19-year-old Anthony Devaney was taking a nighttime walk when a car struck and killed him.

It wasn’t long before a large cross was placed at the scene of the tragedy:

Here’s a difficult question: How long should that cross be allowed to stay up? Forever? A few months? It’s not an easy discussion to have, but the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center believes it’s time for the city of Lake Elsinore (yep, them again) to take it down. In fact, the city did take it down last December… but they put it right back up after Devaney’s mother “demanded” its return.

In a letter to the Lake Elsinore City Council, the AHLC says that to leave the cross up now amounts to government promotion of religion:

Nicole Dailey, Management Analyst and Assistant to the City Manager, contacted our client on December 18, courteously informing her with respect to the “cross that was placed on Lake street,” that although it “was removed earlier this week… We are going to have to put it back because… [the family] is very upset… our solution… is to allow her to have it… until January 6.” That deadline had long passed. Our client contacted the City once again in February, 2014. During this conversation our client was told that the new deadline for removal of the cross would be March 19, 2014. Unquestionably, the City’s selective enforcement of its signage ordinance and its display of the Christian cross on government property violates the state and federal Constitutions, and must therefore be removed immediately.

So… this is awkward. You know exactly how this story will be spun on Fox News Channel: Atheists go after grieving family’s memorial! Someone will inevitably ask, “Who could possibly be offended by a cross in this case?” Members of the family will (understandably) cry on camera while a stoic representative from the AHA is shown on the other half of the television screen.

But at some point, this changed from a family’s personal memorial on public property to a city-approved display of a Christian symbol on public property. Despite repeated promises that they would take it down, the city hasn’t. Would they treat all religious monuments the same way? What about an atheist symbol? If other Christians began putting up crosses on public property to honor their loved ones, would the city let those stay up indefinitely, too? What do they fear will happen if they take it down?

At some point, someone has to say “That’s enough,” and the AHA has decided to play Bad Cop and make a move based on principle. They also write that they’re not opposed to another kind of memorial for Anthony in the same spot:

The City can easily design a secular memorial for the victim’s family, and indeed, it appears to have done so in addition to the display of the cross. It is our understanding that the City has designated a tree and a plaque to memorialize the victim.

So while this is unquestionably an unpopular move on the AHA’s part, and while my heart goes out to the grieving family, I have to say the alternative doesn’t sit well with me, either. If this were any symbol other than a cross, I firmly believe the city would’ve taken it down by now. But this is a council that has already shown that it’ll ignore the law for the sake of advancing Christianity. They’ve long used up any benefit of the doubt.

With all the churches in the Lake Elsinore area, why won’t one of them volunteer to host the cross in Anthony’s memory? That would solve this whole problem in an instant. Unfortunately, by letting this cross remain in place for nearly two years with the hope that no one would ever complain, the city put itself in this awkward position and it’s now up to the council to resolve the issue.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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