COOS BAY — The man who designed a contested war memorial says he got his idea from the federal government.
Landy Marshall served two tours in the Vietnam War. After he returned, he was among members of the Bay Area Jaycees who undertook construction of a Vietnam War memorial for Mingus Park.
“Where I got the idea was looking at TV and seeing all these bodies going to Arlington National Cemetery,” Marshall said. “And I can guarantee that the people that died weren’t all Christian.”
Marshall was one of more than 100 people who crammed into a Coos Bay Public Library meeting room Tuesday night, for a special city council meeting about the 41-year-old memorial. Dozens more packed the lobby and sidewalk outside, hoping for a chance to speak.
The controversy began after the city received a February letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group contends the cross is unconstitutional and wants it removed immediately.
City Manager Roger Craddock said several law firms have offered to represent the city for free.
In a statement Wednesday morning, the city said it would be working with attorneys from the Liberty Institute — a national law firm that represents the Veterans of Foreign Wars association in legal challenges over memorials with religious symbols. The Liberty Institute will evaluate the constitutionality of the memorial in Mingus Park.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the city invited public comments and reserved the library’s Myrtlewood Room in an attempt to seat more people than the council chambers at city hall. But the room could seat only 120.
Coos Bay Fire Chief Stan Gibson stood by the door, counting audience members as they entered to keep track of the room’s capacity. Craddock said the turnout was the largest he’d seen in recent years. People who couldn’t get in waved American flags outside the conference room’s window.
Craddock presented the council with four options: It could leave the memorial as is and face a potential lawsuit. It could modify the memorial by removing the cross. It could sell or lease the land beneath the cross. Or it could move it to private property elsewhere.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that a memorial cross in Mojave National Preserve could remain if the parcel of property it stood on was transferred to a private body.
Iraq War veteran David Romanowski said the memorial was critical to veterans’ dignity.
“In the name of God, and our nation as a whole, do not take that away from them,” he said.
Coos Bay’s Kevin Dubisar, also an Iraq War veteran, was one of several audience members who said they would block any attempt to remove the cross — by force, if necessary.
Mayor Crystal Shoji forbade any kind of demonstration during the meeting, and officials enforced the rule. When speaker Barbara Weed asked cross supporters to stand, Police Chief Gary McCullough and Capt. Chris Chapanar moved quickly to get her away from the microphone.
Although support for retaining the cross was overwhelming, dissenting voices also made themselves heard.
Dawn Brittain, a spokeswoman for the South Coast Secular Society, tried to maintain a positive note in making her case against the cross. “I’m an atheist. That tells you what I don’t believe,” she said. “I’m also a secular humanist. That tells you what I do believe in.”
Brittain said the choice of a cross is exclusionary to veterans of different or no faith.
Crystal Morris, who identified herself as an atheist, said fighting to retain the cross on the memorial would waste taxpayer funds. She said moving the cross to private property or removing it from the memorial are the only acceptable solutions.
An audience member loudly booed Morris as she finished speaking, prompting an apology from the mayor.
The council met briefly in executive session. The city has yet to decide its next course of action.
Reporter Thomas Moriarty can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 240, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasDMoriarty.