A couple of days ago, this blog covered a controversy. The FFRF (Freedom from Religion Foundation) sent a letter to Tucson’s city manager relaying a local complaint about unconstitutional religious shrines on ‘A Mountain.’ Since then, there has been plenty of discussion and a firm commitment from the city council to take no action on the matter. In fact, Councilman Steve Kozachik appeared on a local television dismissing the claim that the shrines are unconstitutional. He claimed that the shrines do not constitute religious endorsement and suggested that the person making the complaint should “find something more important to do.” While Councilman Kozachik is entitled to his opinions, he is not entitled to his own facts and the facts are clear in the letter from the FFRF. One only has to read and understand them. Several court cases are referenced and in every case referenced, federal courts have held that religious displays do not belong on government property. In addition, his dismissive attitude toward a Tucson citizen with a valid complaint was very unprofessional. It is not appropriate to respond to a citizen’s complaint with, “Get a life!” ever. We have the right to expect more from our elected officials.
Tonight at our Caffeinated Godlessness meeting the subject of the shrines on ‘A Mountain’ came up. Some attendees were not moved to action but recognize that someone within our community made the initial complaint. It is a valid concern and we need to stand with that person and make sure their concern is addressed properly. The law is clear. By not taking appropriate action and allowing the shrines to remain on government property, the city is endorsing religion. Councilman Kozachik can say what he wants but a reasonable observer will see the shrines and perceive a government endorsement. Also, not taking action to remove the shrines after a complaint has been lodged violates the first and second prongs of the Lemon Test. Allowing the displays to remain does not have a secular legislative purpose and the city’s inaction has the primary effect of advancing a religion.
On May 8th of this year a statue of the Virgin Mary was booted from public property in West Springfield, MA. In this case, the city’s deputy director of operations took the appropriate action without the case going to court. In another case in Passaic, NJ a shrine built around a stump that resembles the Madonna is being removed. The councilman there recognized that the religious alter does not belong on public property and said, “Although the shrine is sacred to some, it’s on public property and in the sense of the separation of church and state we can’t have a shrine here.” It would be great if our city government would do the same and avoid the possible court challenge and expense.