A 'Jesus fish' on a war memorial causes controversy in Missouri | Bleader

A 'Jesus fish' on a war memorial causes controversy in Missouri


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The memorial after the ichthys was covered - COLUMBIA DAILY TRIBUNE
  • Columbia Daily Tribune
  • The memorial after the ichthys was covered

The legal principle cui bono? matters because it clears the air: Who benefits? Yet American jurisprudence doesn't hold the opposite question in the same regard: Cui patitur? Who suffers?

Will Connor doesn't suffer silently, or mopishly, or without taking his own best shot. But life has dealt him some blows. Will was a friend in high school, and I followed him to the University of Missouri, moved into his dorm, and watched romance bloom between Will and the student nurse he rendezvoused with nights in my roommate's car out in the parking lot. Will and Marsha married when he graduated and were soon parents. They stayed in Columbia, Will running the university's book store, and I'd visit when I came back for football games. The last memory I have from those weekends is of roughhousing with their two very young sons, Jeff and Patrick, on their living room carpet.

When I moved from Saint Louis to Chicago we lost touch. By the time we next talked, the Connors' three sons had grown up and Will was living with Marsha in New York, running the bookstore at Syracuse University. In February 1991 the A-6E "Intruder" Patrick was copiloting disappeared over the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. When I called both pilots were still missing.

"We don't know if he's alive or dead and of course we hope he's alive," said Will. "But if he's dead he's waiting for us in heaven. So it's win-win."

The Will I'd known in school engaged life like a bookish Scaramouche, with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. I didn't know this side of him. Maybe it came from Marsha, who was deeply religious. It might always have been there. Thank God for faith! I thought.

On Easter Day 1991, Patrick's body was spotted in a tidal basin off Kuwait. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery, and today there's a $1,000 annual scholarship given by the Connors' church in his name to a student headed for a military academy or ROTC program. "The whole purpose," Marsha recently told the Columbia Daily Tribune, "is to train Christian military leaders." But why did Marsha Connor recently speak to the Columbia Daily Tribune?

After Patrick died, the Connors and a friend of Patrick's from high school, Peter Scavone, raised $5,000 to create a memorial in Columbia. The top of the eight-foot granite slab says OPERATION DESERT STORM and below is the legend "To the men who gave their lives and the men and women who offered but were spared." Further down are the names of Patrick Kelly Connor and a second local casualty of the Gulf War, Steven Paul Farnen, a soldier. And at the very bottom of the stone an ichthys was carved. Two intersecting arcs that suggest a fish, the ichthys is an ancient Christian symbol; in Greek the letters that spell it double as an acronym for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." Says Marsha Connor, "That's the whole Gospel right there."

Furthermore, Patrick liked to fish.

The memorial was placed in the square of the Boone County Courthouse, in a cluster of memorials from America's other wars, and remained there uneventfully for the next 22 years.

On May 8 of last year the three members of the Boone County Commission received a letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington DC. Someone had dropped a dime on the Desert Storm memorial (an e-mail, actually) and now Americans United wanted to know more. They asked the county for any documents explaining how it was proposed, approved, and installed, and in particular "all documents discussing the components or emblems of the monument, such as the ichthys." If remarks were made at the dedication back in '92, Americans United wanted to know what they were. The organization gave the county three business days to comply.

They mean to sue us!  the commissioners concluded. It took the county a lot more than three days: Ian Smith, the Americans United attorney who signed the letter, tells me he didn't hear back from Boone County until mid-June. But the county yielded on every front. In addition to turning over the documents, Boone County told Americans United it had dealt with the situation—the ichthys was now covered. This corrected "any constitutional violation posed by the iconography," Smith tells me. The crisis passed.

The ichthys had disappeared under a stone plaque that said, "Dedicated 1992." The commission acted quickly and decisively, and if it supposed that no one looks closely at old war memorials and the alteration wouldn't even be noticed, for weeks it supposed right. But that November—by coincidence just as the Connors were about to leave Marcellus for Boone County to visit friends and so Will could do some hunting—they got a phone call from a reporter in Columbia. What did they think of the change in their son's memorial? This was the first they'd heard of it.

"It's almost when you hear the plane has been shot down," Marsha tells me. "You don't know how to think. You just ask why?" Will was disgusted. One inquiry from some lawyers in DC, he told the Columbia Daily Tribune, and "we suddenly cower in our boots." Marsha told the Tribune the earliest Christians had drawn the ichthys to identify friend from foe (a story sturdier in legend than history). "It may not be too long before we all have to use a symbol to be able to talk freely about this to people without getting your head lopped off," Marsha said.

So the ichthys became a public issue in Boone County, Connor a name frequently in the news. Outsiders stepped in. Americans United had triggered the brouhaha, and this June a faith-based nonprofit from Arizona was heard from. After being contacted by the Connors, the Alliance Defending Freedom for Faith and Justice, which in its own words "advocates for your right to freely live out your faith," wrote the commissioners to insist the memorial was constitutional and offer to defend the county pro bono against any legal challenge. (The offer wasn't accepted.) 

This Memorial Day, the question festering, the Connors wrote to Boone County. The ichthys is a "simple symbol" of the dead servicemen's "source of strength," they insisted, pointing out that  many and various ceremonies had been held on the courthouse grounds since the memorial was mounted and no one had ever objected. "Shouldn't the actions of Boone Countians across more than two decades hold more weight than the complaints of a group with no affiliation to the County?"

A lot of people agreed. A meeting of the county commission in late June turned into a public hearing on the memorial. The audience was all but unanimous in demanding the memorial be restored to its original form and then let be. As the meeting adjourned, the crowd broke into "God Bless America."

But in late July a local attorney, B. Daniel Simon, whose firm claims expertise in dispute resolution, among other things, though not in constitutional law, weighed in with a 31-page analysis of federal and Missouri laws. The county had asked Simon for his opinion, and what he concluded was that, "more likely than not," the continued placement of the memorial on the courthouse grounds in its original form would be found by a court "to violate the requirement of religious neutrality as imposed by federal courts . . . and to be a breach of Missouri's traditional 'high wall' between church and state."

Unless the ichthys stays hidden, Simon told the county, the entire memorial needs to go.

The commission was in a mood to clean house. In July, responding to the debate in South Carolina over the Confederate battle flag, it voted 3-0 to remove a five-ton "Confederate Rock" that had long graced—or sullied—the lawn of the courthouse. This part of Missouri is known locally as "Little Dixie," and the plaque on the rock said, "To honor the valor and patriotism of confederate soldiers of Boone County."

And on August 11, in what I would like to think was a far more wrenching decision, the commission voted unanimously to uproot the Desert Storm memorial and transfer it to a local cemetery. One commissioner said he relied on Simon's analysis to make the "financially prudent" choice, and the county counselor called it the "right risk-management decision." 

The commission made this call even though the Connor and Farnen families had ultimately caved. After putting their heads together and consulting with a lawyer, Will and Marsha and Hugh and Gladys Farnen wrote the commissioners in early August and requested that their sons' memorial remain at the courthouse even if that meant hiding the ichthys. "They should be honored where the others who served are honored," said the parents. "The families do not want [their emphasis] the Gulf War Memorial removed or replaced."

It didn't matter. The commissioners said Boone County would create a new memorial honoring the fallen of the Gulf War and other wars not yet represented on the courthouse grounds, and it would be completely secular and publicly financed. And though that memorial has yet to be designed, there was talk that the names of Connor and Farnen would be carved into it as well, along with the names of the county's sons and daughters who fell in Afghanistan and Iraq. The original memorial to Patrick Connor and Steven Farnen would get to stand in private Columbia Cemetery just as its creators designed it.

But of course its creators didn't design it to stand in any cemetery at all. "Are you kidding!" Marsha Connor shouted at me over the phone, making it clear how offended she is by the new plan. "You don't have any bodies!" In her view cemeteries are for bodies, and Patrick's body is in Arlington. Besides, people go by the courthouse. "Gosh," she said, "we lived there over 25 years and we've never even seen this cemetery." It's off the main drag, she said, and if you don't look for it you'll never know it's there. I thought about our family's recent trip to Savannah, Georgia. We wanted to see the grave of Johnny Mercer. This meant first identifying the cemetery, then finding it on a map and driving there, and then finding the grave's rough location on a map of the cemetery and hiking there, and finally pacing up and down the rows of tombstones looking for the one that was his.

Cui patitur? Who suffers? No one suffers for arguing that this or that interpretation of the establishment clause is right for Columbia, Missouri. (By the way, there are reasons to think Dan Simon was too pessimistic in his view of whether Boone County could win a suit challenging the ichthys, one reason being an exchange of e-mails between me and a federal judge who cited recent Supreme Court decisions.) And no one suffers for insisting that the public purse come first and an expensive court battle be avoided whatever the likelihood of winning it. 

Who suffers? Two families lost their sons in a war that by the standards of our other wars in the Middle East was over in a blink of an eye and was almost bloodless. (There were fewer than 150 American combat deaths in the Gulf War.) But they saw to it their sons' names were kept alive on a stone in a public space, alongside other stones honoring the dead of other wars. That wasn't a lot of compensation. But it was something. Now they must trust the county that beat a fast retreat to come up with something equivalent—though minus any expression of the faith that held the families up when they got the news.

I asked to speak to the Boone County commissioners but they didn't get back to me. I did have a conversation, however, with Henry J. Waters III, publisher emeritus of the family-owned Columbia Daily Tribune. Waters still writes occasional editorials, and one of them applauded the commission for its decision—even though, as Waters understands it, the replacement memorial will not be inscribed with individual names. "Understanding why public bodies should not sponsor any sort of sectarian display has come the hard way, as one would expect, but darn it, it’s the right thing to do," he wrote. If he were writing about, let's say, the Ten Commandments prominently displayed alongside Old Glory in the courtroom of a hanging judge in Texas, I'd completely agree with Waters. But this is a different kind of case.

Waters told me he thinks more local people support the commission than raised their voices to say so, because they didn't want to take sides against the Connor and Farnen families. At first he believed it would be enough to hide the ichthys, but he changed his mind. The Desert Storm memorial was a bad precedent, he thinks, and if nobody realized that back in 1992, they do now. Boone County can't be in the business of allowing people to mount private tributes on public property, he said. Let this one slide, and it "would be hard-pressed to say to the next family, 'We did it for Farnen and Connor but we’re not going to do it for you.'" 

This is a reasonable argument but the principles it espouses are Waters's only skin in the game. His "next family" is a hypothetical; Patrick Connor is a specific. It's one thing to stand by a principle and another to stand by a son.


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