The people of Knoxville, Iowa, are not pleased with Americans United.
Residents of the community of about 7,000 south of Des Moines are upset because attorneys with Americans United wrote to town officials and told them to remove a cross from a public park.
The cross is included in a war memorial that depicts a soldier, in silhouette, with a rifle, kneeling before a cross. But there’s an odd thing about this memorial: City officials never commissioned it or even approved its placement in the park. Knoxville’s mayor, Brian Hatch, says a local veteran erected the display without the city’s permission. It was attached to a pole with plastic fasteners.
AU’s letter has stirred up the town and captured national headlines. (Even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal decided to weigh in.) As Sarah Jones reported last week, some conservative commentators are, inaccurately, comparing the situation in Knoxville to Arlington National Cemetery.
It’s a faulty analogy. At Arlington, the families of deceased veterans get to choose an appropriate symbol for the headstone. Sure, a cross is one possibility, but there are many others. A Star of David is offered for Jewish vets, the Islamic crescent for Muslims and so on. There are even symbols of atheism and Humanism for non-religious veterans.
Compare that to Knoxville. There, a cross is being used to memorialize all veterans – including some who were undoubtedly not Christian. This doesn’t honor veterans; in fact, it disrespects some veterans by not including them.
Knoxville residents plan to hold a rally this weekend to “save the cross.” That’s their right, but I think it’s counterproductive. I understand that emotions are running high, but more bluster and long-winded speeches of defiance and division aren’t what the community needs right now. If this matter goes to court, the issue will be decided based on what the Constitution demands, not what the majority wants.
Knoxville, do we really have to do this? There is another approach, a way that can bring the entire community together: Why not erect a memorial in the park that honors all of the town’s veterans? The existing “memorial,” which was erected without permission, is crudely fashioned and simple. Take it down and put something up that’s professionally made, inclusive and, most importantly, non-sectarian.
By allowing a private citizen to erect the cross in the park, the town runs the risk of turning the area into a public forum where other types of signs, symbols and messages could be displayed. I’m not sure Knoxville’s leaders want to go down this road. An inclusive and non-religious memorial is a better answer. If municipal funds are short, a private organization can take on this project and raise money through GoFundMe or a similar crowd-funding site.
In short, I’d urge Knoxville’s leaders and residents to look at AU’s letter not as an assault but as an opportunity. It’s a chance to do this right and create a memorial that honors the duty and sacrifice of everyone from Knoxville who has defended our nation – not just those who happened to be Christian.