Leaders from ten religious and secular organizations today applauded R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s decision to withdraw the State of Rhode Island’s name from a U.S. Supreme Court brief in a controversial church-state case. The brief supported a Maryland agency’s position that its sponsorship and funding of a 40-foot-tall Latin cross to memorialize WWI veterans did not violate the First Amendment. The decision in the case, scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court later this month, could have profound implications for the First Amendment’s principle of separation of church and state, the legacy of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams.
On behalf of the state, former Attorney General Peter Kilmartin had quietly signed onto the brief, filed by other state Attorneys-General, during his last week in office. After learning about it, the ten organizations, led by the R.I. State Council of Churches, urged the new Attorney General to withdraw from the brief. Saying that “Rhode Island’s participation in this brief does a disservice to the legacy of this state and its founder,” the groups’ letter to the AG further argued: “People of no faith and people of all faiths – including Jews, Muslims and others – have sacrificed
themselves for our country. To purport to honor all of them with a 40-foot symbol that is at the heart of Christianity is both a degradation of a sacred symbol and an insensitive attempt to
impose the religious views of the majority on the minority. … “The First Amendment guarantees individuals and religious organizations the right to build a Christian-only monument and conduct Christian services to honor veterans. But that same constitutional protection should not allow such a display on public land and supported by public dollars.”
Earlier this week, Neronha agreed to the groups’ request and formally withdrew Rhode Island from the brief. While acknowledging the importance of the arguments raised by the groups, he instead based his,decision to withdraw on the grounds that the state should not sign onto a brief in a fact-intensive case that had no direct Rhode Island connection. The groups nonetheless applauded the decision today, saying that it has kept Rhode Island from supporting a position that could lead to a significant erosion of the First Amendment’s principle of separation of church and state.
The groups that signed the letter to Neronha were: R.I. State Council of Churches; Rhode Island Board of Rabbis; American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island; New England Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island; Humanists of Rhode Island; Masjid Al-Islam; Vedanta Society of Providence; National Council of Jewish Women, Rhode Island Action Team; and Rhode Island Conference, United Church of Christ.
Rev. Donnie Anderson, the executive minster of the R.I. State Council of Churches, said today: “We are grateful to General Neronha for his decision to withdraw from this case. We appreciate this action and his particular rationale for that decision. Beyond his immediate concerns, many of us in the faith community are concerned about a trend in America to change our understanding of religious liberty. There are already states that provide protection for acts of prejudice in the name of religious liberty. We are thankful that Rhode Island will no longer be associated with a case that could further erode this precious freedom.”
Rabbi Sarah Mack, President of the R.I. Board of Rabbis, added: “Religious symbolism belongs in places of worship and not in public monuments. In a state built upon religious freedom, we are particularly aware of the diversity of ways to memorialize and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation to protect this very principle. We are grateful to the Attorney General for recognizing and respecting the pivotal importance of the separation of church and state.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown stated: “The ACLU shares the views of the religious – and nonreligious – leaders who wrote the Attorney General about the essential nature of church-state separation in our pluralistic society, and Rhode Island’s special role in it. We appreciate that the Attorney General was willing to review this important issue with an open mind and reach the conclusion that he did.”