ROSELLE PARK, NJ — A legal battle between the borough of Roselle Park and the American Humanist Association that has divided the community for months is coming to an end.
The council passed a resolution at its May 4 meeting to settle the litigation between the borough and the AHA over a veterans memorial placed last year at the borough’s library.
The lawsuit, brought against the borough and Roselle Park Mayor Carl Hokanson last year, was initiated by Roselle Park Councilwoman Charlene Storey and her husband, Gregory Storey, both members of the AHA. The suit alleged that the borough’s placement of a memorial depicting the silhouette of a soldier kneeling before a cross at the the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The litigation was turned over to the borough’s insurance carrier, the New Jersey Intergovernmental Insurance Fund,which settled the case pending the borough’s approval.
Details of the settlement have not yet been finalized or released to the media.
According to a May 5 press release put forth by the borough, “The decision to settle was undertaken, not based on the merits of the borough’s defenses or plaintiffs’ claims, but in order to spare taxpayer expense over a dispute that could have taken years to resolve.”
The saga began after the Storeys noticed the memorial in front of the library; it had donated and placed there by Hokanson on July 29, 2016. The council later retroactively approved the memorial a month later at its Aug. 18 meeting.
After the Storeys threatened Hokanson with a lawsuit, the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, along with the Storeys, followed through with that promise and sued the borough in October 2016. The lawsuit demanded that the display be removed and sought to forbid the borough from erecting a “similarly religious display” in the future.
The display, which Hokanson removed from the library Oct. 4, was later donated to the Church of the Assumption, a Catholic church on Chiego Place.
At the time, the Storeys, along with some local citizens, voiced their concerns about the religious nature of the memorial, calling its placement on public property was a “constitutional violation of the separation of church and state.”
Those who defended the memorial argued that a cross was simply a marker used to designate gravesites during the war, and that the cross was not indicative of a religious symbol.
The complaint stated that the Storeys objected to the placement of the memorial and felt personally offended as non-Christians.
“Due to the placement of the cross display outside the entrance to the library, Mr. Storey and Councilwoman Storey believe it cannot be ignored or overlooked,” read the lawsuit. “Its location clearly makes it the property of, and a statement by, the borough government. Mr. Storey and Councilwoman Storey believe that the cross display associates a Christian religious symbol with the borough and gives the impression that the borough supports and approves of Christianity, as opposed to other religions, and that the borough prefers Christians and Christianity over other religions. As non-Christians, Mr. Storey and Councilwoman Storey are personally offended and feel excluded by this governmental message. They oppose this appearance of governmental favoritism for religion and for a particular religion, Christianity.”
At the time, Hokanson expressed disappointment regarding the allegations.
“When I donated the kneeling soldier, it was with the utmost respect for all veterans,” Hokanson had told LocalSource in an interview last year. “To say that I was singling out a select group was far from the truth.”
Hokanson told LocalSource in a phone interview last week that he was unable to comment on the matter at this time.
Gregory Storey told LocalSource that people need to realize what the crux of the issue is.
“Contrary to what people are saying, this whole thing is not about veterans,” he said in a May 15 phone interview. “This is about the Constitution and I’m glad that Mayor Hokanson realizes that. Had he realized that sooner, we wouldn’t have had to go through all this. The mayor took it upon himself to get public workers to put the memorial on public property.”
George Storey also called out the mayor for allegedly ignoring those who reached out to him during the controversy.
“He wouldn’t discuss it with anyone, refused to talk to me, and ignored letters from Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, the AHA and the Anti-Defamation League,” he said.
And George Storey called the argument that the cross was simply a grave marker and not a religious symbol, an erroneous one.
“There are several dozen different emblems of belief,” he said. “In the U.S., a cross is not automatically the gravestone for U.S. soldiers.”
In a May 11 press release AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt called the settlement of the litigation a victory.
“This is a victory for the Constitution and for veterans of many faiths, and none at all, who served our country proudly and deserve to have a memorial that respects everyone,” Speckhardt said.
David Niose, legal director of the AHA, also lauded the outcome.
“A government-owned display that features a Christian cross sends a message that only Christian veterans are being honored,” Niose said in the May 11 release. “This lawsuit was about ensuring that the government must refrain from such religious favoritism, and we’re glad that in the end the Constitution prevailed.”
Since the removal of the memorial last year, some borough residents and business owners have gone out of their way to show solidarity with the mayor by purchasing and erecting kneeling soldier memorials of their own.