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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan July 2, 2009

No ACLU lawsuit over cross-shaped headstones

We received the following chain e-mail from a reader, who asked us to check it out.

"Subject: In Jesus' Name — No! No!

"Did you know that the ACLU has filed a suit to have all military cross-shaped headstones removed and another suit to end prayer from the military completely? They're making great progress. The Navy Chaplains can no longer mention Jesus' name in prayer thanks to the wretched ACLU and our new administration."

There's a lot packed into that e-mail, but here, we're checking whether the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit to have all military cross-shaped headstones removed.

We couldn't find any news stories or court cases to support such a claim.

We asked the ACLU if they had filed such a suit. No way, said spokesman Will Matthews.

"The ACLU has never once advocated for or initiated any litigation in favor of, removing cross-shaped headstones from federal cemeteries," he said in an e-mail.

For good measure, he added the ACLU has also not filed suit to stop voluntary prayer in the military, either.

Not content with the ACLU's denial, we went to the National Cemetery Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They are responsible for maintaining the national cemeteries and issuing headstones and markers for deceased military veterans.

"To begin with, we don't have cross-shaped headstones at VA national cemeteries," said spokesman Michael Nacincik. The headstones and markers the government issues are rectangular.

He also said there was no lawsuit concerning headstones.

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Family members of the deceased can select an emblem of religious belief to be inscribed on the headstone or marker. Currently, there are 39 different emblems from which to choose. The symbols include different types of crosses, the star of David, the Muslim crescent and star, the Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness, and many others, including symbols for atheists and secular humanists.

"Many people choose to have a Christian cross inscribed, but people can choose other symbols, or no symbol at all," Nacincik said.

"We're not going to be removing emblems of belief that people have chosen," he added.

Those emblems are the closest we could find to the origin of this claim: In 2006, the ACLU helped the families of three deceased veterans sue the National Cemetery Administration to add the Wiccan symbol, a pentagram, to the list of approved emblems. The administration did end up adding the symbol.

Believe it or not, we still didn't feel we had exhausted every avenue here, because hadn't we seen photos before of military cemeteries with rows of crosses ? It turns out these cemeteries are mostly in Europe, the final resting place for some of the American troops killed during World War I and World War II. The cemeteries are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, an agency of the executive branch established in 1923.

"I'm not aware of any efforts to remove cross-shaped headstones at our site," said Thomas Sole, director of engineering for the commission.

Generally speaking, the cemeteries are located at the sites of battles where many troops died. Families had the choice of having the remains repatriated to the United States or being buried overseas.

The graves in these cemeteries are marked with crosses or, if the deceased were Jewish, with stars of David, Sole said. The graves of deceased who were neither Christian nor Jewish also are marked by crosses.

In the immediate aftermath of a battle, troops would bury their fallen and mark the graves with wooden crosses. "Our marble crosses are a reflection of those temporary wooden crosses," Sole said.

Technically, the cemeteries are owned by the foreign country in which they are located, but the land is "given to the U.S. for use in perpetuity as commemorative cemeteries," Sole said. The cemeteries are closed to new interments, even to veterans, except for the remains of any servicemen and women lost during the World Wars that may be found on the battlefields.

But just to repeat, Sole said he didn't know about any lawsuits to remove the crosses.

So to sum up, the ACLU said it was not suing over that. ("The ACLU believes very deeply in the cherished value of religious freedom, and the right of all Americans to practice the religion of their choosing — or to practice no religion at all — freely and without fear or compulsion," Matthews said.) The U.S. Department of Veterans doesn't know about any lawsuit. And the American Battle Monuments Commission said there is no lawsuit. So we rate this statement Pants on Fire!

Our Sources

American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU cases defending religious freedom , accessed July 1, 2009

ACLU, Veterans Denied Right to Post Religious Symbol on Headstones, ACLU Charges , Sept. 29, 2006

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Headstones and Markers

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers , accessed July 1, 2009

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, History of Government Furnished Headstones and Markers , July 1, 2009

Arlington National Cemetary, Authorized Emblems , July 1, 2009

American Battle Monuments Commission, Cemeteries

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