ACLU vs. NOLA Parish Over Hurricane Katrina Memorial

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," August 7, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

JULIE BANDERAS, GUEST HOST: St. Bernard Parish is planning to put up a memorial to honor 129 parish residents who died in Hurricane Katrina, along with a 13-foot-tall cross bearing the likeliness of the face of Jesus. Well the ACLU apparently has a problem with this. They say it violates the Constitution. The parish president, Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, responded by saying, "They can kiss my" fill in the blank.

Let's take a look at both sides of this debate. Here is Catholic League president Bill Donohue here in studio and civil rights attorney Jim O'Dea in Washington D.C.

And Jim, I'm going to start with you. What's wrong with the cross at a memorial? I would imagine a lot of those parishioners did pray at some point and the cross is a symbol of that.

JIM O'DEA, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: I'm sure a lot of them did.

BANDERAS: So then what's wrong with that?

O'DEA: I'm sure some of them were Jewish, some of them might have been Muslim. Everyone doesn't pray to a cross, and the government doesn't have the right to assume that because they like the cross as a religious symbol, as do I personally, that all of these 129 people did. The government has no right to impose religion as a memorial to people who may not have wanted a cross to memorialize their death.

BANDERAS: OK, but St. Bernard Parish was one of the hardest hit areas of Hurricane Katrina, and it's Saint Bernard Parish. So what's the next step? Take out Saint and just call it Bernard Parish?

O'DEA: No, because a group of people elected to name it St. Bernard Parish. That doesn't mean anything. Christ said give unto Rome the things that are Rome, give unto God the things that are God. People die, they have a right to be memorialized by their families, by their churches. They don't have the right to be memorialized by their country with a cross. They might be Wiccan like the Veterans Administration refuses to put that up. This is an individual's right to be memorialized, not a governmental entity's right to memorialize them using their religion.

BANDERAS: All right, William, what do you think to that?

BILL DONOHUE, CATHOLIC LEAGUE PRESIDENT: Well, actually I agree with very much of what Jim has to say. Unfortunately, he's wrong on some major facts. This is not the government. They are private individuals. They happen to be government workers, but they are private individuals working on their own time, using private money, and they're volunteering for this effort.

There is no nexus with the government. Unless one wants to make a new argument now that if you work for the federal government, state, or local government, you can't do anything religious on your off hours. I don't even think the ACLU wants to go quite that far. If I'm on the ACLU side, I'd say to them, don't take this case, because now the mask is off. This displays your real adamants. You don't like the public expression of religion whether it's privately funded or publicly funded.

BANDERAS: Is the ACLU overstepping its bounds? Should they just step aside?

O'DEA: No.

BANDERAS: OK, so what do you say to William then?

O'DEA: I say to him that the parish president, whatever he calls himself, I'm not that familiar.

BANDERAS: He's the Catholic League president.

O'DEA: No, no, not Bill Donohue. I'm talking about Junior Rodriguez, "kiss my blank." I know what Bill is. He's a Catholic, I'm a Catholic. He assumes something I don't know to be true because the only person talking about it is this Junior Rodriguez gentleman, who's the head of the parish council.

And down there the parish is not a religious entity. It's what we call counties up here and that's what they call in New Orleans a parish. Now, if he is the political leader of the county and he's talking about putting this up, if he now turned around and said well only with volunteer funds and on private land, then the government has no position. But since the government has taken a position, then I say it's wrong.

It's unconstitutional. Just as Bill agreed with me and, of course, the ACLU is not stepping out of bounds. They don't care about what you do on private land.

DONOHUE: I think what happened is this: I think initially they were going to get involved in the government and on that case Jim would be on the right side of the argument. And I would agree with him. But they gave that up, so now you have private individuals volunteering, private money and on private land. There is no issue here for the ACLU. They ought to just back off.

BANDERAS: I think the government — well, I don't know. There is a separation of church and state, but sometimes I think the government should get out of personal lives.

DONOHUE: It has nothing to do with the government, it's all personal.

BANDERAS: Let personal lives handle it themselves. But anyhow, well, both of you, thank you very much.

O'DEA: I agree with you, Ms. Banderas. Thank you.

BANDERAS: OK, and thank you. Thank you both for coming in.

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