A few miles outside Albia, Iowa, three large stone pyramids sit abandoned in a grass field. The pyramids were built in 1939 by Axel Peterson, a local aficionado of Egyptian history; he had intended to be buried in one of them. Peterson’s final wishes were never fulfilled, but his pyramids endure, a moderately famous bit of local weirdness.
Until this year, they were arguably the most famous monuments in or around the town of Albia, population 3,795. Now they’ve been eclipsed by a new – and controversial – addition.
In 2012, local volunteers began raising money to construct a veterans memorial. The “Welcome Home, Soldier” memorial sits on seven acres off Highway 34; its gleaming granite slabs have space for up to 10,000 veterans’ names. The grounds display 100 American flags, all 50 state flags – and 21 white crosses.
On its official website, the volunteers behind the memorial say the crosses are meant to represent the 21-gun salute traditional to military funerals.
If that’s true, some people didn’t get the memo. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who served as a Southern Baptist minister before entering politics, paid a visit to the memorial while unsuccessfully running for president last year. “This is just wonderful,” he told The Des Moines Register at the time.
It’s not a surprise that Huckabee, who’s still a fixture in the Religious Right, appreciated the crosses. Despite Welcome Home, Soldier’s official explanation, critics say it’s nothing less than a government endorsement of Christianity. And since taxpayer land and dollars supported the memorial’s construction, that criticism may now lead to a lawsuit.
According to KTVO-TV, a local news channel, volunteers received a $200,000 federal grant to fund the addition of the flags and a concrete trail system in 2013. In 2014, volunteers received another $11,413 from the proceeds of a local hotel tax. That’s 45 percent of the tax’s proceeds; the rest got split between two other local projects that are not religious in nature.
There’s also the matter of the memorial’s property. Volunteers for the memorial claim on their website that Monroe County donated the land. In a letter to Monroe County officials, Americans United for Separation of Church and State referenced that claim as a matter of concern.
The church-state watchdog also noted that “there has been some controversy” that the county granted the land to the memorial’s volunteers via improper means. The letter urged county officials to cease all governmental support for the memorial and informed them that if they choose to reclaim the land, they are constitutionally obligated to remove the crosses or sell the land in a bidding process that does not favor a buyer who intends to keep the crosses in place.
Officials in Albia dispute this version of events.
“The statement that Monroe County, Iowa donated approximately eight acres to a private entity for the memorial site is false,” Monroe County Attorney John Pabst wrote in response to Americans United. “Monroe County, Iowa still owns the land upon which the monument is located.”
As reported by the Albia Union-Republican, Pabst, a former attorney for the U.S. Army, insisted that the memorial’s volunteers had simply leased the land under a partnership agreement and that no county funds pay for its maintenance.
Pabst’s letter did acknowledge that some county supervisors and members of the Monroe County Conservation Board sit on the Welcome Home, Soldier Committee. “The employees of Monroe County understand that they can assist the Welcome Home, Soldier Monument on their time or while on vacation from the county,” he added.
In a statement to local CBS affiliate KCCI-TV, Pabst also compared the memorial’s cross display to Arlington National Cemetery. Dave Paxton, the publisher of the Union-Republican, echoed Pabst’s argument in an editorial, claiming that the memorial simply mirrors Arlington and should be allowed to stand unchanged.
“Monroe County’s Welcome Home Soldier veteran’s memorial is under attack by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a meddling quasi atheistic group of knuckledraggers (sic) bent on rewriting the U.S. Constitution, which says clearly ‘Congress shall make no law infringing on the right to practice religion,’” Paxton wrote. (Paxton misquoted the First Amendment, which actually reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”)
Paxton further argued that the county could financially support the memorial because it supported cemeteries that displayed religious imagery and added, “Those Latin crosses specifically mean this: ‘Here lies my brother in arms. Here is a man who gave his last breath to defend freedom.’ Veterans who have never stepped foot in a church understand this.”
It is unclear if Paxton has ever visited Arlington, but he’s wrong about the national cemetery. The nation’s preeminent military cemetery does not display Latin crosses alone on the graves of military dead. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has approved 61 symbols for use at Arlington and other national cemeteries.
Most have some religious significance. In addition to the Latin cross, the families of veterans and deceased active-duty service members may choose crosses and symbols from 27 other Christian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopalian Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Non-Christian belief traditions are also amply represented. There are Islamic symbols, Jewish symbols, Hindu symbols and atheist symbols. Pagans, heathens and contemporary polytheists are represented as well. So are practitioners of some forms of witchcraft: Thanks to a 2007 Americans United lawsuit, Wiccans can now have a pentagram added to their headstones.
Veterans and service-members also aren’t required to display a religious or non-religious affiliation on their headstones at all. If ideological symbols don’t suit them, they have the ability to design their own symbols and submit them for approval. In some cases, as with the Wiccan pentagram, the VA had improperly rejected requests. But in recent years, the VA has proven more flexible. In recent years, it has approved requests to add the bald eagle, the sandhill crane and the pomegranate to its list.
A veterans memorial that displays only Latin crosses, then, doesn’t actually resemble Arlington or any other national cemetery. Nevertheless, the comparison appears frequently in far-right media.
When Americans United pursued a complaint against another explicitly Christian veterans memorial in Knoxville, Iowa, last August, local activists likewise claimed that a depiction of a soldier kneeling before a Latin cross simply mimicked Arlington.
“Would you go to Arlington National Cemetery and ask to take down those crosses? No, who would? There are millions of those there and we’ve got one,” local resident Doug Goff told WHO-TV.
Fox News pundit Todd Starnes repeated Goff’s argument in a heated column. “Will they demand that Arlington Cemetery remove their crosses?” he asked, and added it was “doubtful” AU would pursue a claim against the country’s most famous national cemetery. Knoxville city councilors eventually voted to move the memorial and replace it with a secular alternative.
The Arlington canard seems to owe its existence (at least partially) to a case of mistaken identity.
According to Snopes.com, a site that debunks urban legends, a 2003 chain email accused the American Civil Liberties Union of suing the federal government to remove crosses from Arlington. As proof, the email included a photo that shows white stone crosses arrayed on pristine grass with an American flag overhead.
But the crosses aren’t in Arlington. They aren’t even in the United States. As Snopes notes, the photo depicts a European cemetery where American servicemen are interred, a conclusion easily verified by a side-by-side comparison of the chain email’s photo and any photo of Arlington.
Politifact, a non-partisan website dedicated to fact-checking political claims, also looked into the story and rated it false.
“To begin with, we don’t have cross-shaped headstones at VA national cemeteries,” VA spokesman Michael Nacincik told the website. “Many people choose to have a Christian cross inscribed, but people can choose other symbols, or no symbol at all.”
Despite the best efforts of Snopes and Politifact, the photo has become a fixture of the fundamentalist fever swamp. In 2012, the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly referenced it on the American Family Association (AFA)’s “Today’s Issues” program.
“You were talking a minute ago about Arlington Cemetery,” Schlafly told AFA President Tim Wildmon. “If you haven’t been there, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of all the crosses there and I just wonder if the day is going to come when they want to take down all those crosses.”
Before he suspended his campaign for president, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) repeated a variation of the myth at an Iowa rally.
“Anyone who has visited Arlington Cemetery and seen row after row of tombstone with a cross or Star of David honoring our soldiers who gave the last, the ultimate sacrifice,” he said, as reported by Factcheck.org. “We’re one justice away from the Supreme Court saying we must tear those down.”
No organization, however, has ever sued to remove a privately chosen religious symbol from a veteran’s grave.
Though there’s no constitutional or historical basis to support the assertion that sectarian memorials are an appropriate way to honor veterans, they continue to appear in municipalities across the country. In 2015, AU settled a suit over a memorial on public property in King, N.C.; the memorial had displayed the Christian flag and a statue of a soldier kneeling before a cross.
AU filed the suit on behalf of Steven Hewett, a non-religious, decorated U.S. Army veteran who objected to the memorial’s Christian symbols. Despite Hewett’s service – he served in Afghanistan – his neighbors reacted poorly to his complaint.
In 2010, when the city first debated removing the Christian symbols from the memorial, residents held protests and declared an unofficial “Christian Flag Day” where they displayed the banner on vehicles, homes and some shops. According to Fox News, so many people participated that a local Christian store ran out of the flags.
In an interview, Hewett expressed concern over Albia’s memorial and told Church & State, “[I]t’s disturbing this issue keeps going on.”
“It [the Latin cross] just doesn’t represent veterans as a whole,” he said. “When we look at veterans memorials, we see they don’t honor religion. We honor two things: service and sacrifice.”
Continued Hewett, “A cross does not represent a grave marker. Soldiers’ graves are marked by tombstones. But crosses represent one thing and one thing alone: Christianity. The implication is we are a Christian nation, a Christian army, and this is a Christian memorial.”
Hewett added that he thinks people mistakenly believe the memorials are acceptable because the United State still has a Christian majority.
“That’s bothersome to me,” he said. “It’s really offensive to me and to many veterans, including many Christian veterans.” The fear of being ostracized, he theorized, prevents more from speaking out.
Though they don’t have the support of all veterans, sectarian memorials aren’t likely to disappear. After Americans United reached a settlement with the city of King, the First Liberty Institute, a Religious Right group that had tried to keep Christian symbols in the King memorial, launched what it describes as a “financial war chest” to fund future litigation; its “Don’t Tear Me Down” project called Hewett’s suit a “horror story.”
The group regularly defends sectarian memorials, and may again in Albia’s case. The Union-Republican reported that one town resident, Richard Grimes, has urged county officials to contact First Liberty or another Religious Right group, the American Center for Law and Justice, for legal advice.
Alex Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director, says that explicitly Christian memorials on public property advance the wrongheaded view that America is a Christian country.
“Latin crosses don’t represent all veterans,” Luchenitser said. “This memorial, dominated by a row of 21 crosses, sends an exclusionary message to the families of non-Christians who fought and died for our country. It tells them that their sacrifices are not worth honoring. Such a memorial does not belong on public land and should not be supported with public funds. Such support violates the U.S. Constitution.”
Luchenitser added that Americans United intends to continue pursuing its complaint
That hasn’t deterred Welcome Home, Soldier’s supporters. Local metalsmith Doug Wolfer even launched a fundraiser for the memorial via his business, Krazy Metal Art.
In a post on his professional Facebook page, Wolfer announced that supporters could purchase specially made metal Latin crosses for $15; a portion of the proceeds will go to the memorial. There was so much demand Wolfer’s first batch sold out and he’s already created a second. And on May 15, supporters held a rally in defense of the memorial.
Jim Keller, who heads the volunteer board for the memorial, told KCCI that he won’t comply with Americans United’s request.
“I won’t take down the crosses. I’ll go to jail first,” he vowed.