Florida ACLU to Appeal Ruling on Religious Symbols in Cemetery

March 31, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, March 31, 1999

BOCA RATON, FL — The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said today that it will appeal a court decision allowing Boca Raton officials to remove or destroy religious symbols and monuments erected at hundreds of family grave sites in the city’s municipal cemetery.

Ruling in the first lawsuit brought under Florida’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998, Judge Kenneth Ryskamp said he would permit the removal of religious symbols from the grave sites of loved ones on the basis that vertical memorials and their ground coverings were not essential to or required by the Christian, Catholic and Jewish faiths.

“There are few rights more precious than honoring a loved one at a grave site in accordance with the dictates of one’s religion,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida.

“While the city can enact reasonable regulations governing its cemetery, restrictions like these reflect religious intolerance and insensitivity,” he added.

The ACLU’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of seven families of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths, challenged the city’s threat to remove decade-old vertical religious symbols, including Stars of David and Christian crosses from municipal cemetery plots.

The families had either purchased plots or had buried family members or loved ones there, and maintained grave sites containing vertical religious symbols with the permission of the cemetery.

The case was brought under Florida’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998, which provides a heightened level of legal protection against state government infringements on religious freedom. The ACLU said that Boca Raton’s threatened removal of religious items from grave sites constitutes a substantial burden on religion.

“The courts are not in business to determine what is or is not orthodox religious practice,” said ACLU attorney James K. Green. “We are also disappointed that the Court failed to distinguish between the gravity of removing vertical memorials already in place at grave sites and the abstract prohibition of vertical memorials in the future.”

Today’s ruling was a preliminary decision. The ACLU said it would file its appeal after Judge Ryskamp issues final judgment in the case.

The case is Warner, et al. v. The City of Boca Raton. The 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.

The ACLU’s previous release on the case is at:

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