FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, March 22, 1999
WEST PALM BEACH, FL -- In the first case to be filed under Florida's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida goes to trial today on behalf of seven families seeking to prevent the removal and destruction of religious symbols placed at the gravesites of their loved ones.
At issue is the City of Boca Raton's threat to remove various vertical memorials, including Christian crosses, Stars of David and other religious symbols, from cemetery plots at the Boca Raton Community Cemetery. The ACLU will argue that under the new law, passed in 1998, removal of religious items from grave sites would constitute a substantial burden on religion.
The lawsuit, Warner, et al. v. The City of Boca Raton, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union's Palm Beach Chapter on January 12, 1998, on behalf of seven families who are members of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths.
"This may be the first case anywhere in the United States defending religious freedom and expression at a public cemetery," said ACLU attorney James K. Green of West Palm Beach.
According to the families, the religious monuments have been placed at the grave sites with the permission of cemetery officials since 1984. Some families have also covered the grave sites with floral ground cover or erected barriers around the grave site to signify their religious faith and to prevent desecration by people walking on the graves.
"The City claims that religious freedom could not have been infringed because the families should have known about the ban on vertical religious memorials at the time the grave sites were purchased, " said Green. "But at the time the families purchased the grave sites, the restrictions on vertical religious symbols were neither enforced nor disclosed."
The religious freedom act was enacted by the Florida legislature last year after an unusual coalition of public interest groups, including the ACLU and the Christian Coalition, along with mainstream religious organizations, joined together to urge its passage.
The act provides a heightened level of legal protection for claims asserting government infringements of the free exercise of religion. It also creates state law protections for religious freedom that previously existed under the federal constitution prior to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
"There are few rights that are more precious than honoring a loved one at a grave site in accordance with the dictates of one's religion," said ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon.
"Florida's religion freedom act creates expanded protection for people of faith," he added. "It does not permit restrictions simply because the religious expression is cluttered, messy, or does not meet with someone's sense of good taste. Restrictions like these reflect religious intolerance and insensitivity."
The case will be heard by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Ryskamp in the Federal Courthouse, 701 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach.
The seven families are represented by ACLU volunteer attorneys Lynn G.Waxman and James K. Green of West Palm Beach, and Charlotte H. Danciu of Boca Raton.