Tucked away in overgrown grass along the side of a road in Salem, Oregon, was a small, white cross, commemorating the life of a mother who died in a tragic car wreck at least a decade ago. But that tribute has since been voluntarily removed by the family after a prominent atheist group complained about its location.
In late June, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a notice to Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett (D), demanding the 4-foot-tall Christian symbol be removed because it was positioned on city property — an “unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”
Rather than fight the complaint, the family decided to simply remove the memorial because they didn’t want the intimate tribute to get caught up in a firestorm of scrutiny.
“They didn’t want their mother’s memorial to become a point of contention in the community and thanked everyone who supported them,” Kenny Larson, a spokesman for the city, told KATU-TV. “They ask the media respect their privacy and have no further comment.”
When Bennett first received the letter from FFRF attorney Rebecca Markert, he acknowledged that the cross was, in fact, located on city property.
“We had a woman killed there in an accident 10 or 12 years ago,” he said at the time. “Her children wanted to put up a memorial to her, did, and have maintained it ever since.”
When asked if the cross was an endorsement by the city of Christianity, Bennett said it was “an endorsement of a family’s love for their mother and their sadness at her loss and their desire to commemorate her memory.”
The FFRF stood its ground, nevertheless. Cheryl Kolbe, Portland area chapter president for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is based in Wisconsin, said earlier this month that she doesn’t “like seeing Christian symbols or any religious symbols on public land.”
“This is not the same as a very recent car accident where somebody put some flowers or whatever or even a cross on the side of the road a week or two,” she said. “The cross dramatically conveys a message of governmental support for Christianity whatever the intention of the display may be.”
And in a statement issued Tuesday, the FFRF said it was “pleased to hear that the cross has been removed” and thanked the family for understanding the “problem religious imagery creates on public property.”
It is not immediately clear how the city would have proceeded had the family not decided to voluntarily remove the cross memorial.