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Barry Fagin: Memorial is monumentally unconstitutional

Barry Fagin
This memorial in the Monument, Colo., town cemetery is unconstitutional because of its promotion of Christianity. (Photo courtesy of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation)

This column first appeared in LA Progressive on March 11 and has been updated and is reprinted with permission.  

By Barry Fagin

Can non-Christians serve in the military? Should they be allowed to? If they die in combat, should their sacrifice be honored?

Does America’s military fight for Jesus? Allah? Moses? Joseph Smith, perhaps? Are America’s soldiers sworn to defend the bible? The Koran? The Book of Mormon?

Last October, the town of Monument, Colo., dedicated a memorial to veterans in the town cemetery. Given how many veterans are buried there, this makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the inscription, well-known in fundamentalist circles: “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American Soldier; one died for your soul, the other died for your freedom.”

The cemetery memorial is, I believe, deeply and profoundly offensive to all non-Christians buried there. I’m confident it offends some Christians, as well. But even if everyone buried in that cemetery is Christian, what does the memorial say to non-Christians who have lost loved ones in uniform? No need to ask. Jewish War Veterans of the USA has already called for the memorial’s removal.

Also, the memorial features the copyrighted logos of America’s armed services. These are specifically forbidden by Department of Defense Instruction 5535.12 to be used “for any purpose intended to promote religious beliefs (including non-belief).”

The memorial is simply unconstitutional. It is a blatant government endorsement of a specific sect of a specific religion on government land. You cannot enter the cemetery without passing by it.

This memorial was an Eagle Scout project. I know many Eagle Scouts and their parents, all of them awesome.

I’m sure this young man is awesome, too. Unfortunately, every single adult involved in the approval and execution of this project failed him badly.

When the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) claimed it would file suit against the town of Monument because of the memorial, the town claims to have sold the land on which the memorial was built to the family of the Eagle Scout, making it a matter that, supposedly, no longer concerns the town. 

Even if this were true, the problem of illegal use of trademarked Department of Defense logos remains completely unaffected.  Additionally, such a transfer would require that the land be completely maintained by the family in perpetuity, and a sign prominently displayed indicated that the memorial is private and is in no way endorsed by the town. And, of course, it would need to have been sold to the family at fair market value. We do not yet have any evidence any of this has happened or will happen.

In fact, there is good reason to believe what the town has done is something different and equally problematic. For the land to truly have been sold, it needs to be conveyed to the family “in fee simple,” a fact which would be recorded on the deed. Since the town has not publicized the documents pertaining to the alleged sale, as yet we have no way of knowing if this is in fact what the town has done. 

What is far more likely is that the town has cooked up some scheme involving the sale of burial plots, either of equivalent size to the land around the memorial, or possibly but less likely, located on the grounds of the memorial itself. Even if we grant the tenuous assumption that family members will eventually buried on the memorial site (if you would see it, you’d see how unlikely that is), all the town has sold to the family is the right to be buried there. The land would still be owned by the town.

We will not know the truth until the town of Monument is compelled to provide all documents pertaining to the alleged transaction, either through the Colorado Open Records Act or through legal action.

Sadly, I suspect doing right by the law was not the town’s primary purpose. What this ruse has accomplished is the widespread conviction among consumers of evangelical Christian media that those of us who are opposed to this chicanery are vilifying an Eagle Scout who honored the service of his family and other veterans with a completely legal memorial on private land. That is patently untrue. 

But in our modern culture wars, truth takes a back seat to faith.

Barry Fagin is an ACLU National Civil Liberties Award winner and a recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.