Controversial memorial approved in Roselle Park

ROSELLE PARK, NJ — After weeks of controversy and emotions running high, the Roselle Park Council has voted to retroactively accept Roselle Park Mayor Carl Hokanson’s donation of a veteran’s memorial, as well as retroactively authorizing the memorial’s placement in front of the borough’s public library.
But the story is far from over.

It was standing room only at the Aug. 18 meeting of the council in Roselle Park, as residents came out to voice their opinion in what has become a big controversy in the small town of under 15,000 residents.

It began on July 29, when a memorial of a kneeling soldier in front of a cross was erected in front of the borough’s public Veteran’s Memorial Library. Hokanson donated the cross, paying for it from his own personal funds.

And that’s when the trouble began.
Although many residents praised the memorial, some deemed the placement of the cross on public property as a constitutional violation, specifically of the separation of church and state, and more specifically the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Roselle Park resident Gregory Storey, who is a member of the American Humanist Association and the husband of Roselle Park Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey, was disturbed by the newly erected memorial and wrote a letter, sent via certified mail, to Hokanson, asking him to remove it.

“While I applaud your clear desire to honor the service, bravery and sacrifice of veterans — to whom we all owe a profound debt — your memorial singles out veterans of the Christian faith with the prominent use of a cross,” wrote Storey in his letter. “It ignores veterans of all other religions and those of no religion. While this may be acceptable in a memorial placed on church or other private grounds, it is unacceptable in memorials placed on public property. It singles out one religion and amounts to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”

According to Storey, Hokanson advised him during a phone conversation that the Veteran’s Memorial Library Board of trustees had authorized the memorial. But Storey told Hokanson that he had checked with the board, and that they, in fact, had not authorized the memorial. “Please be advised that, contrary to what you told me, the Veterans Park Memorial Library Board of Trustees has not authorized the religious veteran’s memorial that you had installed in front of the library,” wrote Storey. “The board’s minutes show no such authorization, or even that the subject was brought up at a board meeting. As a Roselle Park resident and taxpayer, I respectfully request that you have the memorial removed from the library grounds as rapidly as possible. I believe the people of Roselle Park support all veterans. But installing on public property a veteran’s memorial that singles out one religion is not the way for the borough to show its respect for all veterans.”

When there was no response from Hokanson, Storey said, he contacted the Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, who then sent Hokanson a 10-page letter. “Though apparently intended as a recognition of fallen military personnel, the display favors and endorses Christianity by suggesting that the government honors the service and sacrifice of Christian soldiers to the exclusion of others,” wrote the legal center. “If your government wishes to recognize fallen military personnel through a display, it must do so in a religiously neutral manner. It is our understanding that you personally authorized this display on government property, telling some residents that it had been approved by the library trustees. It is also our understanding that there is some uncertainty as to whether the record supports the claim that the trustees knew or approved of the display before it went up.”

The legal center communicated its intentions to Hokanson. “Either way, it appears that there is no dispute that the display was put up with your knowledge and approval, and that borough employees, while in the course of their employment, installed it,” they wrote. “Furthermore, the record is clear that borough residents have seen the display and complained to you about it. These complaints have apparently been dismissed, and there has been no indication that the display will be removed. The borough’s Christian cross prominently displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause as it strongly affiliates the government with religion and Christianity specifically, while sending a stigmatic message to non-Christians that they are outsiders, unwelcome in their own community. This letter demands that the cross display be removed immediately. If not, you are inviting litigation.”

Storey told LocalSource that the issue is a serious one. “It’s a serious matter,” said Storey in a phone call. “Nobody is trying to say the veterans don’t deserve tribute. They all deserve tribute. But you can’t single out one religion. Without the cross, no one would have a problem with it. Without the cross, it’s a very touching memorial.”

According to Storey, Hokanson has acted alone, and in the capacity of a private citizen. “Hokanson has done this all his own,” said Storey. “He made the donation as a private citizen without discussing it. It’s kind of a one-man show. The mayor is a deeply religious man, but he obviously thinks that everybody shares his beliefs. That’s just not the case. I’m concerned at this pattern of the mayor promoting his religion. I think it’s divisive. The constitution doesn’t stop at the boundaries of Roselle Park. This is the law of the land.”

Councilwoman Storey, whose father was a veteran, reiterated to LocalSource the issue of what she believes is a clear case of a constitutional violation. “The constitution applies everywhere in the United States,” said Storey in a phone call. “Roselle Park is not carved out just because Carl Hokanson wants it that way. I know people will blame me and my husband, but these are Hokanson’s actions because he wasn’t authorized to put that up. I don’t know why he feels a need to do this.”

Hokanson, who is a Marine Corps veteran, told LocalSource that he has received an overwhelming amount of support for the memorial, but that he is not surprised by the actions of Councilwoman Storey or her husband. “Not an hour after the monument went up I got a phone call,” said Hokanson.

According to Hokanson, Storey resigned from the town council temporarily in 2015 after the council approved the term, “Christmas Tree” for the holiday lighting ceremony in the borough. She later rescinded her resignation.

Hokanson said that the purpose of the donation was to honor war veterans with a well-known symbol of sacrifice. “Here we go again,” said Hokanson. “As a former Marine, I respect all fallen comrades. The symbol is to recognize that honoring the valor and coverage of those who fought for liberty with a widely recognized symbol of sacrifice does not violate the constitution. This is not a free speech issue. I bought this with my own money and donated the statue to the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library.”

Hokanson cited a similar case in Maryland, in which a memorial that secular groups called ‘religious’ prevailed in the courts. “On February 29, 2016 the Washington Times described the American Humanist Association as an Atheist Group,” said Hokanson. “I stand with Maryland, which defended the cross as a non-religious and historic memorial to war veterans.”

In 2014, however, the American Humanist Association prevailed in a case similar to this one, where a memorial depicting a kneeling soldier in front of a cross — almost identical to the one in Roselle Park — was removed in Lake Elsinore, California.

According to Hokanson, several attorneys have reached out to the borough, offering to take the case pro bono. “I am very pleased,” said Hokanson. “We’ve gotten calls from other attorneys who are willing to take the case pro bono. They want to help me and help the borough fight the case.”

Hokanson said that there are three sides to every story. “There’s my side, your side, and the truth,” said Hokanson. “The thing that gets me is when Storey gets up and talks about the constitution. Well, whose constitution? Your interpretation of the constitution, or my interpretation of the constitution?”

According to Hokanson, Storey called him up to fling accusations. “He accused me of being a Donald Trump,” said Hokanson. “He was ranting and raving. Well, I’m no Donald Trump.”

Hokanson pulled no punches when it came to Councilwoman Storey. “The people are tired of her injecting her poison into this community,” said Hokanson. “She brings in these atheists to sue me. When I support my vets, I support all vets.”

Fast forward to last week’s meeting, and it seemed that everyone had an opinion. Dozens of veterans — members of the VFW and Knights of Columbus — came out in support of the memorial, as did residents, many of whom felt that the memorial should stay, and praising Hokanson, who is a former member of the Marine Corps, for donating the memorial. Others, however, believed that the memorial should be taken down.

One long-time resident of Roselle Park expressed his displeasure at what he sees as much ado about nothing. “No one in the Battle of Normandy said, ‘send me a Humanist,’” he told the council, describing the death of many American soldiers in passionate and vivid detail.

He also criticized Councilwoman Storey. “You can’t have a councilwoman running with the same party as the mayor and then sandbagging the mayor over a piece of wood. I hope we don’t get sued because we can’t afford it.”

Carl Pachino also expressed his support for Hokanson, and passionately chastised Storey. “If you take it down because she says it’s a cross, then we give in to her,” said Pachino. “She’s brought in so much negativity to this town over the last six months. It’s been an absolute embarrassment. Let it stay. Let’s put an end to this and let’s stop being embarrassed on Channel 7, Channel 4 and any other channel.”

Rob Domanski, a Jewish resident who moved to the borough about two years ago with his family, spoke at the meeting, stating that the memorial did not represent him or his grandfather, a war veteran. “Despite what some people might suggest, the cross does not represent me or my family,” said Domanski, a political science professor who teaches constitutional law. “Anyone who is asserting that this memorial with a prominently displayed cross represents all veterans is wrong. The American flag represents all veterans.”

According to Domanski, he has received negative comments on social media by sharing his opinion, being called a pagan and told, in all caps, that Roselle Park is a “Christian community.”

Domanski warned that by accepting the memorial, the council was opening a Pandora’s Box. “If you accept it, you are legally committing yourself to accepting all religious statues,” Domanski said. “Avoid that Pandora’s Box and simply decline the donation.”

Another Jewish resident offered to donate a memorial depicting a soldier kneeling before a Star of David, and to erect next to the other memorial in front of the library.

Many voiced the opinion that the cross was not a religious symbol, but a marker to delineate the site of a fallen soldier. “The artwork is not an institutional promotion of religion,” said one resident who is also a veteran. “It delineates where a soldier is buried. You may see it as a cross, but it just denotes where a fallen soldier is interred.”

One resident, living in Roselle Park Park for 53 years, who said her husband was a veteran, voiced the opinion that the memorial should be removed. “All the controversy can be ended by just removing it,” she told the council. “Put it on some other lawn — like yours, Mayor Hokanson. We don’t need it. The donation doesn’t add to that little park. It’s perfect the way it is.”

David Niose, legal director for the American Humanist Association’s, Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said that the organization is disappointed with the outcome of the vote. “As far as the vote, we are very disappointed,” Niose told LocalSource in a phone call. “Rather than make an effort to inform the public that there are more inclusive ways of honoring veterans, the council has chosen the path of pandering and political cowardice.”

Niose chastised the council. “I really think that if the council had considered it soberly, they could have assured the public that a religiously-neutral statue would go up,” said Niose. “They are really asking for a lawsuit, and they will get one.”

But Hokanson has said that if a lawsuit should come, he intends to act in the best interests of the borough, and that he will follow the advice of the town’s legal counsel. “If a lawyer comes to me and says, ‘you have a 60-40 chance you’ll lose, then I’ll remove it,” said Hokanson. “If we have a 51 percent chance, we fight. If it’s 49 percent, we pull it. I am not going to put the borough in jeopardy.”