Veteran crosses not all welcome

April 21, 2009

By Jim Feehan

Graves in Hillside Cemetery are decorated for Memorial Day. File

Graves in Hillside Cemetery are decorated for Memorial Day. File

The local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars plans to continue its two-decadelong tradition of placing flags and crosses at this year’s Memorial Day service at Hillside Cemetery. But members need input from the families of veterans buried there to get the job done.

Last year, an Issaquah resident complained about the placement of crosses at the gravesites, said David Waggoner, senior vice commander of the VFW Albert Larson Post No. 3436.

Because of the complaint, the VFW and Flintoft’s Funeral Home are asking families of veterans buried at the cemetery to sign a form authorizing the placement of various symbols and what they want them to be. Those include a flag, a cross, a Star of David or other symbol that a family recommends at the gravesite.Families can choose more than one symbol or they can choose none.

Some family members may not want their veteran’s grave marked with a cross and it’s possible that a U.S. flag may not be appropriate for some graves, too, Waggoner said.

“The VFW would like to continue to honor the tradition of placing a cross at every grave,” he said. “We want to honor whatever the family wishes.”

Waggoner said the military does not consider crosses a religious symbol. Crosses are used as a marker for the placement of gravesites and have been for decades. He cited the example of two large cemeteries of World War II veterans — one near Normandy, France and the other in Luxembourg.

“We want to take the positive approach,” said Allen Flintoft, of Flintoft’s Funeral Home. “We want to allow people to participate. We want to make certain we’re fulfilling people’s wishes.”

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether a cross to honor fallen soldiers can stand in a national preserve in California. At issue is an eight-foot-tall cross in the Mohave National Preserve in San Bernardino County. A smaller wooden cross was first constructed by the VFW in 1934 and was originally maintained as a war memorial by the National Park Service. The American Civil Liberties Union objected to the cross and filed a suit on behalf of a former Park Service employee.

Two years ago, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the ACLU and said the cross was an “impermissible government endorsement of religion.” Bush administration lawyers appealed to the high court last fall and said the decision would require the government to tear down a cross that had stood without incident for 70 years as a monument to fallen service members.

The VFW said the 9th Circuit ruling could trigger legal challenges to the display of crosses at Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere.

At issue is the 1st Amendment’s ban on “an establishment of religion.”  Four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled against the display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse. Then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said such a public display of a religious message violated the 1st Amendment because it amounted to a government endorsement of religion.

The court’s conservatives said in their dissenting opinion that religious displays on public land generally do not violate the 1st Amendment, since no one is forced to participate in a religious event or listen to a religious message.

Last year, more than 400 crosses were placed at gravesites at Hillside Cemetery during a Memorial Day event featuring Rep. Dave Reichert.

There is a veterans’ section there that is nearly full. Veterans’ graves are also scattered throughout the cemetery.

“We’re one of the few little town posts having a service on Memorial Day,” Waggoner said. “We really have no qualms about placing a crescent for Muslims. Some people may just want to have a flag.”

The VFW post has 156 members of which 92 percent are World War II veterans, said Waggoner, a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Vietnam.

“This is a community that is proud of its veterans,” Waggoner said.

The local VFW annually offers a $1,000 scholarship to students at the three major high schools. Each scholarship commemorates a World War II veteran — the Ernie Nyberg scholarship at Liberty High School, the Joe Grigas scholarship at Skyline High School and the Bud Ambrose scholarship at Issaquah High School.

What to know

A letter to family members of veterans buried in Hillside Cemetery and a form that needs to be filled out indicating their choice of symbols are below

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