Meeting on memorial: 'Freedom of religion, not freedom from religion'

COOS BAY, Ore. -- The City of Coos Bay is hiring an attorney to assist it in the fight to have a cross removed from a local park.

A Myrtle Point man asked the Wisconsin Freedom From Religion Foundation to represent him last February in asking the city to remove a cross from Mingus Park on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, and many got to express their feelings on the matter at a public meeting held Tuesday night.

More than 100 people lined up at the Coos Bay Public Library on Tuesday night to voice their opinions about whether the cross should stay or go. Many in attendance voiced support for keeping things the way they are.

One of those voices was the man who helped build the cross. Landy Marshall served two tours in Vietnam, and then came back to Coos Bay to build the cross to remember local residents who died.

"Where I got the idea for the cross was looking at the TV and seeing all these bodies going to Arlington National Cemetery," Marshall said. "And I can guarantee you that the people that died weren't all Christians."

Marshall, like many others who spoke out in support of the cross, said it's simply a marker for people who have died.

"When someone dies in battle, you don't just leave their body there," he said. "You leave a marker."

Marshall said though some can take the cross to mean a relgious symbol, he saw it as a symbol of death.

"Where I got the idea for the cross was looking at the TV and seeing all these bodies going to Arlington National Cemetery, and I can guarantee you that the people that died weren't all Christians," said Marshall.

It is a marker for veterans, and he said he felt compelled to speak for those who couldn't.

"58,479 men who can not stand here like we are today, and live out their lives," he said. "That's who we did this for."

Supporters and residents who frequent the park also noted that the cross isn't the only religious symbol standing. In addition to a Shinto inspired bridge, a Bhuddist garden, and personal plaques with Hinduism and Judaism, the cross is viewed as just a part of a place where all faiths are welcome.

There were some vocal opponents. Four people spoke out against the cross saying it was government endorsement of religion.

The legal question of whether or not the city endorses the cross is a bit of a concern. After 40 years, Marshall and others got the city to pay for a pressure washing and then the application of a thin layer of grout on the memorial using city funds.

Those who oppose it say that is where the endorsement began, and said taxpayer dollars should not be used to promote religion, especially on public property.

One man spoke up against the cross and said, "I am a proud heathen, but I support our Veterans and respect them."

The man continued to say that he has taken crosses off of grave sites where he knows the soldiers buried there were athiests.

"How can you say this isn't a religious symbol, and then listen to all of the spiritual talk we've heard tonight," he pointed out.

The man referenced multiple times when local pastors said the fight to keep the cross was a battle between good and evil forces, and now was Coos Bay's time to choose which side they wanted to be on.

The city will continue to explore its legal options which could include anything from removing the memorial to leaving it as it is and transferring the land to a private party to fighting the FFRF in court.

The FFRF has not officially filed a lawsuit, but the city wants to explore its legal options if that day comes.

For those that were turned away from the at-capacity meeting, the city said they will accept written comments on the issue throughout April.