ACLU wants parish to forget cross
Katrina memorial bears Jesus’ face
Sunday, August 06, 2006
By Karen Turni Bazile
Alarmed by newspaper reports that a hurricane memorial in St. Bernard Parish will feature a cross bearing a likeness of the face of Jesus, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana is reminding parish officials of the Constitution’s separation of church and state.
Never one to back down, Parish President Henry “Junior” Rodriguez has a simple reply: “They can kiss my ***.”
In a July 28 letter to Rodriguez and other officials, Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Joe Cook said that the government promotion of a patently religious symbol on a public waterway is a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits government from advancing a religion.
Rodriguez did not say whether he has responded to Cook’s letter, but in an interview, he said he sees nothing improper about the memorial, which will be mounted near the shoreline of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet at Shell Beach. The cross and accompanying monument listing the names of the 129 parish residents who died in Hurricane Katrina are earmarked for what the parish says is private land and are being financed with donations, Rodriguez said.
Nonetheless, Cook asked the parish to erect a religiously neutral symbol and also voiced concern that the Parish Council was sanctioning a religious monument.
Returning Rodriguez’s volley, Cook added, “It would be better if he would kiss the Constitution and honor it and honor the First Amendment.”
The St. Bernard Parish Council voted several months ago to erect a monument, but at the time did not offer specific plans. The parish recently announced plans to dedicate the memorial on Aug. 29, the one-year anniversary of the devastating hurricane.
The cross is being designed and fabricated by Vincent LaBruzzo, a welder and fabricator from Arabi. The stainless-steel cross will be 13 feet tall and 7 feet wide and will be lighted, according to a note on the parish’s Web site, www.sbpg.net
LaBruzzo worked for the parish before recently taking a job with Unified Recovery Group, the company clearing the parish’s storm debris. Rodriguez said he helped LaBruzzo get the job with URG. LaBruzzo did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Rodriguez and others like the idea of putting the monument along the banks of the MRGO, because that waterway, dug by the federal government as a shipping shortcut in the 1960s, is widely blamed in the parish for accelerating the deadly flooding that accompanied Katrina. Over the years erosion has widened the outlet, so the bank on which the cross will be erected is on privately owned land, Rodriguez said. He added that the parish is researching who owns the land on which the stone monument bearing the names of the victims will sit, but he thinks that it is also privately owned.
Parish Councilman Tony “Ricky” Melerine and Charlie Reppel, Rodriguez’s chief of staff, said they are co-chairing the memorial committee on their private time.
“The memorial is being coordinated by a group of volunteers on their own time, and no public money is going to the project that will be on private land,” Reppel said. “The committee members are all volunteers, including me. We are putting in a lot of unpaid overtime.”
Other committee members include St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Anthony Fernandez Jr.; St. Bernard Tourism Director Elizabeth “Gidget” McDougall; former Parish President Charles Ponstein, who is working with a state agency on local business retention; Lorrie Allen, Reppel’s assistant; and LaBruzzo.
As for the parish’s statements that the memorial is being done outside government’s auspices, Cook seems unconvinced.
While the ACLU thinks a memorial to the storm and its victims is “clearly appropriate,” Cook said, St. Bernard’s is “still all very questionable. I think there is official government involvement with the endorsement and advancement of this clearly religious symbol.”
New Orleans Times-Picayune