After nearly a year of debate about the design of a monument in Leif Hanson Memorial Park, the Kenai City Council will hear from the public for the first time during tonight’s meeting.
One month after the park memorial was installed last summer, creator Scott Hammond received word that some city council members had raised concerns to administration about a cross displayed on the statue. The 12-foot monument shows a soldier kneeling in front of a cross with the inscription, “Never Forgotten.”
Kenai resident Bob Myles, a member of the National Veterans of Foreign Wars Committee, will give a 10-minute presentation to the city council addressing the complaints from his perspective. Myles, who served six years in the Marine Corps and fought in Vietnam, said he expects to see a large turnout of veterans at the meeting.
“The symbol does not represent religion, it is a memorial tomb for a fallen soldier,” he said. “I do not want it changed and I have talked to a number of people who have the same view as me.”
Kenai city council member Terry Bookey said he heard from a couple citizens last summer who were concerned about the statue as a potential liability to the city. Relating to the separation of church and state, Bookey said he was made aware of a similar memorial monument with a cross was proposed in Lake Elsinore Calif. The city was threatened with a lawsuit and eventually prohibited the statue from being built.
Bookey and council member Ryan Marquis brought the concerns from the public to the attention of city administrators and city attorney Scott Bloom. Bookey said he asked if the city would be open to a liability because of the depiction of a cross on the monument.
“As a council we have to look out for city not based on what our personal beliefs are, but for what is best for city as whole,” Bookey said. “Right now the monument is not an agenda item and has not been discussed by council.”
Hammond, owner of Metal Magic, said the council members concern of a religious symbol on city property is hypocritical. The City of Kenai has the Russian Orthodox Church on its seal, he said.
Hammond said the design is in respect to the Vietnam War veterans and the cross is recognized as a memorial tomb for fallen soldiers. When asked by city administration if he would compromise and consider moving the statue to in front of the VFW building, refused because it was built specifically for the memorial park, he said.
Hammond said he has contacted the Organization of American Center for Law and Justice, which deals with the separation of church and state issues. Because the primary effect of the cross is a soldier grave marker, he said they ruled there was nothing unconstitutional and it was acceptable on public property.
Hundreds of thousands of graves are marked with a cross all over the country, he said. Despite the concerns raised from council, he said he hasn’t heard any complaints about his monument.
“Not to be an eccentric artist but I believe it has the right to be there,” he said. “It’s not like I built a 12-foot cross. It is obvious what it is.”
Hammond said he will attend the council meeting but doesn’t plan to speak unless any council members have a question for him. During the whole process, he said he invited the two council members who raised the issue to talk with him but he has not heard from them.
“They would rather have the issue go away, but I refuse,” he said. “If we don’t deal with it now, sooner or later the community will have to make a decision. Let the chips fall where they may I am prepared to fight for it.”