Kenai Council tables contentious veteran's monument resolution

A contentious resolution surrounding a Latin cross embedded in a veteran’s memorial on public land has been tabled indefinitely by the Kenai City Council.

After nearly an hour of discussion, the group voted to halt progress on a resolution affirming its support of the Veteran’s Memorial in Leif Hansen Memorial Park at its meeting Wednesday.

At the March 19 council meeting, veterans packed the council chambers and many voicing their desire to see the memorial be left alone, after concerns circulated that the council had considered moving the monument because of the cross.

Council member Tim Navarre sponsored the resolution, which reads, “The city council of Kenai supports veterans and respects the public testimony presented by the veterans that spoke in support of the veteran’s memorial.”

He said he wanted to show support for the veterans who “spoke from the heart.” He said when he looks at the war memorial he doesn’t see it as a religious symbol.

“I see a soldier kneeling paying respect to another soldier who died,” he said. “People who look at the monument and see religion will make their point to you. The fact that it is called a veteran’s memorial – it is what it is.”

The council voted 5-3 to table the resolution, with council members Terry Bookey, Mike Boyle, Ryan Marquis and Robert Molloy and student representative Courney Stroh voting yes. Mayor Pat Porter, council members Brian Gabriel and Navarre were against the motion to postpone the resolution indefinitely. Boyle, a Vietnam Veteran, motioned to table the resolution indefinitely.

Council member Terry Bookey began the discussion by asking city attorney Scott Bloom what legal action could come as a result of the council approving the resolution.

Bloom said in his opinion, if the city was sued for having a cross design in a public park, they would most likely lose litigation, based on the recent ruling made in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

In February a California federal judge rejected a proposed memorial which was to be built on public property. It depicted a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross, violated federal and state laws. The court ruled the monument unconstitutional for endorsing religion and ruled in favor of the American Humanist Association, who filed the lawsuit, according to a Feb. 27 story from the Religious News Service.

When the design was presented to the Lake Elsinore city council for review, some residents objected to the memorial because it had religious symbols, while some city council members supported it.

Bloom said with these types of cases a judge’s ruling on the constitutionality is anyone’s guess. The wording in the resolution about supporting the veterans and respect for their testimony in support of the memorial could be interpreted in choosing a side, he said. If the city remains neutral on the topic, they would not be viewed as endorsing a religion.

“Some risk (voting for or against the resolution) would promote or antagonize,” he said.

The Kenai city council received two letters on the issue. One from the American Center for Law and Justice, which urged the city to continue to display the veteran’s memorial, siding with the artist Scott Hamman, “who intended the cross as a grave marker, not a Christian icon,” read the letter signed by Erik Zimmerman, the senior associate on the council of the American Center for Law and Justice.

Another letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, asked the city to remove the Latin cross from the veteran’s memorial and requested a response to the letter within 30 days.

Bloom said he would not respond to the letter without direction from council.

Molloy said the city is stuck between a rock and a hard place on the memorial issue. He said while he respects the veterans’ support for the monument, besides the words, “Never Forgotten” engraved on it, there is not identification to say the statue is a veteran’s memorial.

Shortly after the monument was installed last summer, council member Marquis said he responded to a citizen’s concern that the image on the monument resembled the one in California. Marquis and Bookey asked city administration and Bloom to investigate the if the potential of a lawsuit could happen to the City of Kenai.

Marquis said he wished the city paid more attention before the monument was installed. While he said he respected the veteran’s testimony wholeheartedly, he never asked for the monument to be removed and feels the veterans have been misled.

“This issue has created a division in the community and it is not healthy,” he said.

Bookey said he has endured a lot of criticism for his response to citizen requests.

“I have been threatened and ridiculed and my moral beliefs have been called into question,” he said. “I am looking out for the best interest in the city even if it doesn’t align with my own beliefs. This is a business decision, not personal.”

Porter said she would have supported the resolution and wants to see the veteran’s memorial stay where it is.

“I might have to make another decision legally if we were forced to,” she said. “I’m not afraid of being threatened. You still have the potential lawsuits either way, the monument is still there. It could go either way no matter what we did here tonight.”

Bob Myles, a Kenai resident and member of the National Veterans of Foreign Wars Committee, said he would like to see the council make a decision one way or another.

“I believe (council) side-stepped the issue in a cowardly way,” he said. “I thought (Navarre) did a fantastic job with the resolution. The issue is not going to go away.”

Myles, who spoke to the council at the March 19 meeting, said the public have spoken overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the monument where it is and if the council would not take a stand, they can be voted out.

“The council needs to remember that veteran’s vote and elections are coming up,” he said. Why keep them in position if they do not support the citizens it is time for a change in council. If you don’t agree with somebody we can vote them out of office.”

 

Reach Dan Balmer at dan.balmer@peninsulaclarion.com

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