October 2015 Church & State | People & Events

Some members of an Iowa town are angry over an Americans United complaint regarding a Christian-themed veterans’ memorial on public property.

In August, AU asked officials in the town of Knoxville, a small city of about 7,000 south of Des Moines, to remove a display of a silhouetted soldier kneeling before a cross because it does not honor all veterans. The plywood cutout was made by a resident and placed in a public park without city leaders’ permission, but the town has chosen to leave the homemade display in place.

Americans United acted on behalf of an anonymous local resident who opposed the sectarian display in a public park. But once word got out about AU’s challenge to the religious symbol, proponents of the display decided to stage a rally. The Des Moines Register reported that about 2,000 people crammed into Young’s Park Aug. 30 to voice their opinion. Among them was state Sen. Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton), who said the First Amendment gives the town the right to promote religion.

“You go ahead and be offended,” Sinclair said in a message directed at Americans United. “You know what, I’m offended. I’m offended you want to take away a memorial to these men and women. That same bit of the Constitution that defends that freedom of speech defends our right, your right, to place a cross as a religious and a beautiful social memorial to the men and women who laid down their lives.”

Others tried to argue, bizarrely, that the U.S. Constitution does not apply to Knoxville’s memorial because it was not commissioned by Congress.

“Was this memorial legislated by the Congress of the United States of America?” asked rally organizer Al Bregar. “Contrary to what the Beltway organization would have you believe, there’s nothing in the Constitution that forbids this display.”

One rally attendee even tried to argue that the memorial, which contains the most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith, is not religious at all.

“A warrior has went down and another warrior is saying goodbye,” said Don Zoutte, a former Knoxville mayor. “That’s it, plain and simple.”

In reality, Americans United has a strong case against the makeshift memorial. In January, Americans Uni­ted reached a favorable settlement in Hewett v. City of King, which was a challenge to a nearly identical veterans’ memorial in King, N.C. To avoid costly litigation, the city agreed to remove a statue showing a soldier kneeling before a Christian cross. The city also agreed not to fly the Christian flag at the veterans’ memorial and to repeal a four-year-old city policy allowing private citizens to fly religious flags at the memorial.

The situation in Knoxville has received quite a bit of publicity. Several Republican presidential candidates have weighed in on the side of the town, and Rafael Cruz, father of GOP hopeful U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), even traveled to Knoxville to speak.

On Sept. 8, members of the Knoxville City Council met to discuss the possibility of selling the piece of land that houses the memorial.