[StBernard] Swords Being Crossed Over Memorial to Katrina Victims

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Aug 16 22:09:40 EDT 2006

Swords Being Crossed Over Memorial to Katrina Victims
A New Orleans-area parish wants to erect the symbol on the storm's first
anniversary. But the ACLU says the effort is unconstitutional.
By Ann M. Simmons, Times Staff Writer
August 16, 2006

NEW ORLEANS - A proposed memorial to victims of Hurricane Katrina from St.
Bernard's Parish that includes a cross bearing a depiction of Jesus has
spurred a conflict between parish officials and the American Civil Liberties

The ACLU says incorporating a cross in the memorial is unconstitutional
because local government officials were part of the committee that conceived
the idea and because the group thinks the site where it will be erected is
public land.

But parish officials insist that the land where the memorial will be placed
is private, though it is near a public waterway. And they argue that parish
employees, who are members of the memorial committee, are volunteers who
worked on the project on their own time, using private funding.

The proposed memorial is scheduled to be erected Aug. 29, the storm's
one-year anniversary. It is a 13-foot-high, 7-foot-wide gold-painted,
stainless steel cross bearing a silver artistic rendering of Jesus' face. An
accompanying stone monument will be inscribed with the names of the parish's
storm dead and the 20 who were never found.

"I don't know what their problem is," said St. Bernard Parish President
Henry "Junior" Rodriguez.

"We're just trying to memorialize the people who passed away during
Hurricane Katrina. This has nothing to do with religion. We're going to
memorialize these people, whether the ACLU likes it or not," he said.

Rodriguez said 129 St. Bernard residents died because of Katrina and the
ensuing storm surge that swallowed the area, which adjoins New Orleans. All
but about 50 of the parish's 27,000 homes were flooded.

Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said his group had
initially learned of the memorial through news reports. He is waiting to
receive information from the parish about the project and the involvement of
parish employees.

"The cross, with a government endorsement, sends a message that only
Christians are welcome in St. Bernard Parish," Cook said. "That is a very
inappropriate message for a government to send."

Cook said that to his knowledge, the memorial would be placed in a waterway
that is normally public land.

"Even if it's private land, at this point it's [about whether] the
government is entangled with the memorial," Cook said. "If a private group
had come up with this idea and funded it, we would protect their right to do

The three-dimensional, 1,600-pound cross was designed and constructed by
welder Vincent LaBruzzo, who said he had worked as many as 14 hours a day,
at least five days a week, over the last month to finish the memorial.

In a July 28 open letter to Rodriguez, Cook said his group sympathized with
the parish's desire to honor St. Bernard's storm victims, but suggested that
either "a different religiously neutral monument be erected," or the cross
presently planned be moved to private land.

But Rodriguez has snubbed the ACLU's proposal to change the memorial. "I
don't give a damn what they suggested," Rodriguez said. "This is what we've
decided. They are not going to dictate to me what kind of memorial we're
going to have."

Cook said his group would prefer to resolve the matter without litigation. A
decision will not be made until the ACLU has all the facts.

Standing proudly beside the freshly completed structure at his workshop in
Harahan, La., on Tuesday, LaBruzzo said he jumped at the opportunity to do
his part to pay tribute to those lost to the storm.

"Let us love our people the way we want to love them," LaBruzzo said. "What
we're doing here is love. It's about love and caring."

LaBruzzo, who said he used to work for St. Bernard Parish until about a
month ago, said he donated his labor.

The plan is to erect the memorial about four to six feet from the shoreline
at Shell Beach in eastern St. Bernard, on what parish officials say is a
private bank near the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

Rodriguez said the site had been chosen because Shell Beach was where St.
Bernard initially felt Katrina's impact, and the outlet was responsible for
so much of the parish's flooding. The unveiling of the memorial is scheduled
to be part of a daylong remembrance of the storm.

"We think it's proper and fitting to memorialize an event that impacted so
many people," said Steve Cannizaro, public affairs director for St. Bernard
Parish. "Katrina gave an incredible try to kill St. Bernard. It's definitely
the most significant thing here since the 1815 battle of New Orleans,"
Cannizaro said, referring to the fight at the end of the War of 1812 that
brought Louisiana into the United States.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington nonprofit public
interest law firm, has offered to defend St. Bernard in any ensuing legal
battle over the memorial.

In an Aug. 9 letter to Rodriguez, Jay Sekulow, the organization's chief
counsel, wrote that his group had a particular interest in ensuring that
"crosses and other commemorative symbols are not stripped from our nation's
memorials by overzealous interest groups."

Sekulow's organization has been involved in an ongoing battle to preserve
the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego. On Monday, President Bush
signed a bill making the cross a federal war memorial under control of the
Department of Defense.

Rodriguez said at least half a dozen attorneys and corporations had pledged
legal support for the parish in any prospective lawsuit with the ACLU, but
he predicted it would not be needed.

"What are they going to sue us over? It's private property," Rodriguez said.
"We're not hurting anybody. That's the last thing on our mind."

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