Editor's note: The headline of this story was changed to clarify the discussion at Thursday's public meeting.
COLUMBIA — Boone County commissioners, who earlier this year ordered a Christian symbol on a Boone County Courthouse war memorial to be covered, said Thursday the move was the most legally safe decision they could make.
“At this point, we felt this was the best way to manage this risk," Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said during a public meeting Thursday, adding the decision wasn't made lightly.
That didn't stop more than a dozen people from asking the commission on Thursday to uncover the ichthus — also known as the Jesus fish — on a 1992 memorial commemorating Boone County soldiers who died during Operation Desert Storm. The county covered the ichthus after an inquiry from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group based in Washington, D.C.
Fred Parry, the publisher of Inside Columbia magazine, said the commissioners should respect the soldiers' families, who he said wanted the covering removed as well.
“In my personal opinion — I’m not a lawyer — I think there may have been an over-interpretation of the Establishment Clause, where it specifically refers to freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” he said.
The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause limits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
Parry also said the public needs clarity about how commissioners made the decision.
Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill, who served in the Air Force, said no votes were held on the matter. Rather, the decision was a building and grounds management issue, he said.
"We were all informed of it. We knew what was happening. We tacitly agreed," Atwill said.
Northern District Commissioner Janet Thompson was out of town during Thursday's forum on the covering of the ichthus. Atwill proposed another discussion with the public when all three commissioners are present. There are also some pending lawsuits over similar circumstances, Miller said, so waiting until those are resolved would help clarify the legal landscape.
The Supreme Court has issued contradictory rulings in this realm, MU law professor Carl Esbeck said in an interview Friday.
He pointed to the constitutionality of writing "In God We Trust" on money and government buildings. He also said the Supreme Court ruled in a May case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, that government bodies may start meetings with a prayer. The court said that practice did not discriminate against minority faiths and was consistent with tradition, according to SCOTUSblog.
On the other hand, courts have denied governments the ability to erect religious iconography, such as nativity scenes during Christmas or menorahs during Hanukkah — though the courts are less unified on this, Esbeck said.
Lynn Acton, who spoke at Thursday's meeting, said one of her biggest concerns is that an out-of-state group was able to change a memorial “that was so personal to us.”
“I feel that it should be a decision that should be made by the veterans and the veterans’ families, and not by unknown people,” she said. "We don’t know their names … and yet we find the commission reacting and covering up a symbol that’s there and has a meaning to a lot of people.”
Supervising editor is Adam Aton.