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Cleveland Orders Decoration and Cross Removal from Graves at Cemeteries: Is that Legal?

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on May 13, 2009 12:00 PM

The city of Cleveland is really taking budget cuts to another level, it seems. Next in line for cost-saving measures are the city's twelve cemeteries where "rising maintenance costs" have pushed the city to send out letters to relatives of people buried there telling them to "remove crosses and other decorations from graves or have them taken away." Although the city says its policy has been there for 14 years, now that it's actually going to be enforced, people might wonder if such a policy is even legal?

As a general rule, if a city's policy doesn't "pick on" a particular type of decoration or symbol, particularly religious ones such as crosses, and simply applies across the board to ban any and all decorations, then such a rule could very well be valid. In other words, if a city were simply to ban crosses from its graveyards, it would be risking a lawsuit because the policy is singling out a particular religion for different treatment, as compared to others. Additionally, if a rule is supposed to apply to all decorations, but is only enforced as to particular ones, that might raise legal issues too. However, going only on the news report, Cleveland's "grave decoration policy" may be one that is directed to any and all decorations.

Still, city officials who have argued for strict enforcement of this policy are surely not making friends with relatives and families who say "enforcement will diminish the memory of hundreds buried in the cemeteries." Something to think about come election time, perhaps. Lastly, and this probably comes as small consolation, but Cleveland Parks and Recreation Director Mike Cox did indicate that crosses (and presumably other decorations) "can be kept up during the winter and seven days after a holiday."

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