Group demands Salem remove roadside cross memorializing mother who died in crash years ago

A roadside cross memorializes a mother who died in a car crash 10 to 12 years ago off Kuebler Boulevard, according to Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett.

A roadside cross memorializing a mother who died in a car crash years ago is at the center of a battle brewing over the separation of church and state in Salem.

A group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation is demanding the city remove it.

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett said Tuesday that the city is reviewing the situation and that it's the first time they've received a complaint about the memorial.

Tucked away in some grass off Kuebler Boulevard near Stroh Lane is a nearly 4-foot tall cross sitting on a heart-shaped piece of land.

Cheryl Kolbe told KATU it's been there for at least a dozen years.

"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," said Kolbe. "The cross dramatically conveys a message of governmental support for Christianity whatever the intention of the display may be."

Kolbe is the Portland area chapter president for the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Wisconsin.

About two weeks ago, a lawyer for the organization sent a letter to Bennett demanding the memorial be removed, saying someone in the area complained.

"The government cannot be seen as endorsing any religion," said Kolbe. "The courts have ruled consistently that a cross does represent Christianity and gives the impression of promoting Christianity over other religions or non-religion."

Mayor Bennett admits the memorial is on city land.

"We had a woman killed there in an accident 10 or 12 years ago," Bennett explained. "Her children wanted to put up a memorial to her, did and have maintained it ever since."

When asked if the memorial is an endorsement of Christianity by the city, Bennett said, "No. It's an endorsement of a family's love for their mother and their sadness at her loss and their desire to commemorate her memory."

Bennett couldn't tell KATU who the woman was or identify her family.

A KATU crew could find no indication of her identity on the memorial.

A city spokesman said they're looking into it.

"It's a new complaint and we'll take a look at it," said Bennett. "And we'll take a look at our, at their constitutional rights of free speech, our ability to allow memorials on public right-of-way, what the statutes say."

"I don't like seeing Christian symbols or any religious symbols on public land," said Kolbe. "They're free to move it to private land."

When asked what her group's next step would be if the city decides not to remove the memorial, Kolbe referred KATU to her group's national leaders.

"We’ll have to discuss that (possible) decision with our local resident complainant and see what they’d like to do next," Rebecca Markert, managing staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told KATU by email on Wednesday. "We’ll wait to see what the city decides to do. The best remedy for this situation is for the memorial cross to be moved to private property where it is more appropriately displayed. We believe that once the city reviews the case law surrounding these crosses, they will agree."

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