Community Protests California Memorial of Crosses for Troops Killed in Iraq

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The hundreds of white wooden crosses planted on a quiet suburban hillside honor the memory of troops killed in Iraq — or, depending on your leanings, exploit personal grief for politics.

Jeff Heaton, who along with peace group members started putting up the crosses in early November in relatively conservative Lafayette, sees the effort as a simple tribute.

"It seemed like it would be a touching way to make people aware of the true costs of the war," he said.

But others are offended by the display of more than 400 crosses, on property owned by a friend of Heaton's. It sits opposite a commuter train station and is visible from a heavily traveled highway to San Francisco.

"I do not consider this a memorial," Lisa Disbrow, a resident of nearby Moraga who has a son preparing to serve in Iraq, said at a public hearing Monday night. Although many spoke in favor of the exhibit, others called it "painful" and a "travesty."

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The hearing, which drew a crowd of more than 200, was technically not about the memorial itself, but about an accompanying sign: "In Memory of 2867 U.S. Troops Killed in Iraq."

City law limits signs to 4 square feet, much smaller than the current sign, which Heaton estimated at 80 square feet. The crosses aren't a problem, officials say, because city law exempts memorials and historical markers.

The council is asking city attorneys for advice on whether the sign ordinance conflicts with freedom of expression and may vote in about a month, said Mayor Ivor Samson. Options might include demanding that the sign be downsized or removed.

"Clearly, if this had happened in San Francisco or Berkeley or Oakland this would be a dog-bites-man story," said Samson, a three-term mayor retiring in December. "When it happens in a quiet suburban community that is generally more conservative, then it's more like man bites dog."

Samson said he does not know of any Lafayette residents killed in Iraq, although a number are serving there.

Heaton, 53, a contractor who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, said the attention and support the memorial has received surprise him.

His first attempt to erect a memorial, in 2003, was vandalized; it was on the same property. The second has proved more successful, although one passing motorist did get out of her car and take down the sign.

Besides crosses, the memorial contains other religious symbols, and organizers plan for it to grow.