No Faith in THIS Graveyard, Mister!

Florida court allows removal of religious signage from cemetery.


by Sly Spurling

In a setback for a new law restricting governmental infringement in religious affairs, a Judge ruled that the city of Boca Raton could remove or destroy religious symbols and monuments made or left at gravesites in the city's municipal cemetery.

Judge Kenneth Ryskamp said he would permit the city to remove religious symbols from the grave sites of loved ones, saying that the vertical memorials and their ground coverings were not "essential" to or required by the Christian, Catholic and Jewish faiths.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida had filed a lawsuit based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998 on behalf of seven families of mixed faith. This was done to challenge the city's intention to remove decade-old vertical religious symbols, including Stars of David and Christian crosses, from plots in the municipal cemetery. They said that they would appeal the decision as soon as it was finalized.

"There are few rights more precious than honoring a loved one at a grave site in accordance with the dictates of one's religion," said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. Simon continued to say, "While the city can enact reasonable regulations governing its cemetery, restrictions like these reflect religious intolerance and insensitivity."

Florida's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998 provides a higher level of legal protection against state government infringements on religious freedoms. The ACLU said that Boca Raton's threatened actions in this matter constitutes a "substantial burden" on religion.

"The courts are not in business to determine what is or is not orthodox religious practice. We are also disappointed that the Court failed to distinguish between the gravity of removing vertical memorials already in place at grave sites and the abstract prohibition of vertical memorials in the future." said ACLU attorney James K. Green.

The rules for the cemetery forbid such things, but this rule was never enforced in the past. Now they've decided to crack down on them. According to an associated press article, the city wants the items removed so they do not "hinder" access to other plots. They are also concerned about accidents with machinery used for landscaping or digging graves, said Bruce Rogow, an attorney for the city.

"If the backhoe hits one of these objects, sending it through the air, someone could get hurt," Rogow said. That sounds like a crock of it to me. It's probably more of a case of city beautification run amuck. Sometimes all the religious iconage at a cemetery can get a little much, and there's nothing worse, in they eyes of zoning officials and realtors, than an unsightly clutter that causes property values to go down.

In other words, the city wants to keep its graveyard from being cluttered by silly, religious symbols, in spite of whatever meaning or religious significance those monuments may have the families of the departed. How nice of them: not only will the zoning people pester you when you're alive, but they'll come back to haunt your loved ones when you're gone, too. No respect for religious freedom or freedom of expression on either side of the grave!

The ironic thing is that, while this Act was being considered, the ACLU teamed up with their perennial foes in the Christian Coalition, as well as many other mainstream religious groups, to get it passed. Many people of vastly different outlooks came together to agree that this was a good and needed thing. And now, with the first case to come down the pipe for it, a judge shoots its teeth out of its mouth. Charming.

Anyone in the Boca Raton area should be hopping mad over this one. The last thing anyone needs is to have the city show up and tell you that the cross in front of grandpa's headstone needs to be removed. And if you think this doesn't matter, remember what Ben Franklin said about Death and Taxes. Contact the ACLU to see what you can do on a grass-roots level.

Also contact the city council of Boca Raton to ask them why the state government's wishes for a state free of civil interference in religious matters are being overturned. I bet they might be very willing to listen if a number of concerned citizens with loved ones in the cemetery show up to a meeting to ask why this is going on. They voted to enforce the rules, they might be persuaded to revoke that decision.

The case is Warner, et al. v. The City of Boca Raton. The families are represented by ACLU volunteer attorneys Lynn G. Waxman and James K. Green of West Palm Beach, and Charlotte H. Danciu of Boca Raton.

The ACLU of Florida can be reached at

Executive Director: Howard Simon
3000 Biscayne Blvd., Suite 215
Miami, FL 33137
Phone: (305) 576-2336
Fax: (305) 576-1106
E-mail: ACLUFL@aol.com

The latest case report can be found at

http://www.aclu.org/news/1999/n033199a.html

The City Council for Boca Raton can be reached at

Mayor: Carol Hanson, 561/393-7708

Deputy Mayor: Bill Glass, 561/393-7708

Council Members: Wanda Thayer, Susan Whelchel and Steven Abrams, 561/393-7708

Boca Raton City Hall Boca Raton City Council
201 W. Palmetto Park Road 201 W. Palmetto Park Road
Boca Raton, FL 33432 Boca Raton, FL 33432
561/393-7700 561/393-7708

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