By DAVE PAXTON
Editor and Publisher
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C. based “nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all Americans,” that many say convolutes and misreads what the constitutional principle of “separation of church and state” means, has Monroe County’s Welcome Home Soldier monument in its sights.
According to Monroe County Attorney John Pabst, the Monroe County Supervisors and Albia City Council received a letter from the group this week demanding the county and city divorce itself from any connection to the privately organized and funded veteran’s park and pay back any money given in support of the monument.
“We have received a complaint regarding Monroe County’s and Albia City’s support of the Welcome Home Soldier war memorial park,” the letter stated. “The memorial prominently features numerous Latin crosses. We understand that Monroe County donated eight acres of property to a private entity for the memorial site. We further understand that the Albia City enacted a measure earmarking 45 percent of the proceeds of a hotel/motel tax for the memorial park. Finally, we have also received a report that the County plans to expend taxpayer funds for grounds upkeep and park development and maintenance.
The person making the complaint is anonymous.
“We write to inform you that the use of governmental resources to support this religious display violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Please end all governmental support for this park and recover the resources that have already been provided.”
The group further demands that the county and city recoup the fair-market value of the land that the they alledge the county donated for the memorial. “We understand that there has been some controversy over whether the land where the memorial site was lawfully conveyed to the private entity. If the county retakes ownership of the land, it must either remove the crosses from the memorial park or sell the land to a private entity for fair-market value under an open bidding process that does not favor buyers who wish to keep the crosses on the property.”
They give the Monroe County Board of Supervisors and the City of Albia 30 days to respond.
According to Albia City Clerk Linda Heller, the Welcome Home Soldier monument has received $11,413 from the hotel-motel tax, which was approved by a significant majority of voters in Monroe County. A bike trail and other tourism efforts are also being funded by the tax.
Jim Keller, a Vietnam combat veteran who has headed up the Welcome Home Soldier effort, said he has received the money but hasn’t spent it. “I had a feelling something like this would come up,” he said. “Frankly, I’m sick of it.”
Heller said the city has had no other financial stake in the project. She added that council members, the mayor and City Attorney Breckenridge had not seen the letter yet.
Keller said his group is under a 28E agreement with the county allowing them to use the land for 20 years and as long as it remains open to the public as a veteran’s park. He added that Welcome Home Soldier and Monroe County have purchased a lawn mower together. County employees use it to mow the Secondary Roads property and volunteers use it to mow the Welcome Home Soldier Memorial.
“Everything we’ve done at the memorial has had the approval of either the county board of supervisors or the taxpayers of Monroe County,” said Keller.
Monroe County Attorney John Pabst was still processing the letter. A former J.A.G. Army lawyer, Pabst said he believed there actually exists laws authorizing funds for veteran’s parks and that he was researching that. “It’s my understanding that the county never gave money to the Welcome Home Soldier committee,” he said. “I know for a fact that all of the crosses were paid for privately,” said Pabst. “It’s not unlike Arlington National Cemetery, where there are thousands of Latin crosses as well as Star of Davids and markers with the Muslim Crescent. I always thought veterans had the right to place whatever religious symbol they wanted on their memorials.”
Richard Grimes of Albia, a pastor and an outspoken advocate for religious freedom, suggested the letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, could be the best fund-raising effort the monument has ever had. “People need to start writing checks to Welcome Home Soldier,” he said. “We need to show our support for our own First Amendment rights and the right to honor our veterans.”