Roselle Park named in lawsuit over memorial

ROSELLE PARK, NJ — After threatening Roselle Park Mayor Carl Hokanson with a lawsuit over the installation of a veteran’s memorial placed in front of Roselle Park’s public library, the American Humanist Association has followed through with their promise.

The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, Roselle Councilwoman Charlene Storey, and her husband, Gregory Storey, filed a lawsuit last week against the Borough of Roselle Park and Mayor Carl Hokanson after Hokanson personally donated a ‘kneeling soldier’ veteran’s memorial to the borough.

The lawsuit demands that the display be removed and seeks to forbid the borough from erecting a “similarly religious display” in the future.

The display features a cross-shaped silhouette with a soldier kneeling in front of it, and the Storeys, along with some local citizens, voiced their concerns that the memorial is religious, and that its placement on public property is a “constitutional violation of the separation of church and state.”

Hokanson has temporarily removed the memorial while the case is being litigated.

The memorial, placed in front of Roselle Park’s Veteran’s Memorial Library on July 29, prompted Gregory Storey, a member of the AHA, to send a certified letter to Hokanson, asking that he remove the memorial.

When there was no response from Hokanson, Storey contacted the AHA, who wrote a letter to the mayor asking him to remove it and stating that if he didn’t, a lawsuit would be filed.

Despite the threat, however, the Roselle Park council approved the memorial retroactively at their Aug. 18 meeting.

Although there were those at the meeting who voiced their objections to the memorial, many residents were vocal about their support of both the memorial and Hokanson during the public comment segment of the meeting.

According to the lawsuit, “when the government displays an iconic religious symbol — the symbol of Christianity — on its property, it sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion. This message of religious favoritism is even more problematic because the cross display purports to be a government memorial honoring war dead. No such monument should honor just one religious group, but the cross at issue here does exactly that: it exalts Christian veterans and excludes everyone else.”

The complaint states that the Storeys, both members of the AHA, object to the placement of the memorial and feel 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,” reads 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.”

As of press time, both Gregory Storey and Charlene Storey had not responded to LocalSource’s request for comment.

The complaint also touches on the meeting at which the memorial was approved, specifically noting comments of some supporters of the memorial. “Some of the supporters of the cross display who spoke at the Aug. 18 meeting expressed anti-atheist sentiments,” reads the suit. “For instance, one member of the public, while lamenting about the possibility that there would be a lawsuit if borough council adopted the cross display resolutions, complained that the justices on the United States Supreme Court are ‘all atheists.’”

The suit states that the defendants’ approval, ownership, installation, maintenance and prominent placement of the cross display on government property amounts to the advancement of religion and, specifically, an endorsement of and affiliation with Christianity, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In addition, the suit states that the memorial’s placement lacks a secular purpose, fosters excessive governmental entanglement with religion and constitutes a “deprivation of the plaintiffs’ rights which are secured by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.”

David A. Niose, legal director at the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, told LocalSource in a phone call that he was confident that the AHA would prevail in court. “We think the law is very clear here and we’re quite confident the suit will succeed.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, admonished Hokanson and the council in a statement. “The mayor and Roselle Park council had the opportunity to support an inclusive memorial that honors all who have served to defend our freedoms,” said Speckhardt in the statement. “Instead, they chose to favor only Christian soldiers, ignoring the sacrifices made by many of our diverse veterans.

Monica Miller, senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in a statement that the memorial display is a clear constitutional violation. “A cross displayed on government property, approved by the mayor and borough council, endorses religion in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” said Miller. “The city’s duty is to remain religiously neutral to respect the rights of all of its citizens rather than promoting Christianity.”

In 2014, the American Humanist Association prevailed in a lawsuit challenging a similar religious display for veterans in Lake Elsinore, Ca. The American Humanist Association is also challenging crosses on public property in Bladensburg, Md. and Pensacola, Fla.

Hokanson released a statement to LocalSource in response to the lawsuit.
“It is a disappointment that Councilwoman Storey and her husband continue to push a personal agenda with this lawsuit against Roselle Park,” reads the statement. “While they have provided a copy of the lawsuit to the press, we have yet to see the complaint. Furthermore, because this is pending litigation, I cannot comment on the lawsuit itself at this time. However, there are a few points I wish to make.

When I donated the ‘kneeling soldier,’ it was with the utmost respect for all veterans. To say that I was singling out a select group was far from the truth. And after the council meeting on Aug. 18, it was clear to me that nearly all of the residents in attendance felt the same way. While there were a few who spoke against it, the majority supported it. Consequently, I had every hope at that time that Councilwoman Storey would rescind her lawsuit.

It is incomprehensible to me that while we struggle to keep our community affordable, that any member of this council would put their own personal needs and agenda above the people we have been elected to serve. I wish to add that Councilwoman Storey was approached after the August meeting in an attempt to mediate these differences but she refused.

I strongly believe, like many of you, that this tribute to our veterans should remain as is. However, I will temporarily remove the ‘kneeling soldier’ while the Storey lawsuit plays out in court.”