A middle school in West Virginia is refusing to remove the angels from a memorial for their beloved teacher, despite the threat of legal action from an atheist group.
The engraved, stone memorial, which sits near the entrance of Ravenswood Middle School, was erected in honor of Joanna Christy, a 26-year education veteran and devout Christian who died in a car accident in 2004.
"There's so many kids that came through this school that were affected by her death, that were affected by her teachings, and now we're just trying to keep her memory alive here," Tracy Sadecky, a family friend, told local station WSAZ, which first reported the incident.
However, the Wisconsin-based atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, took issue with the memorial, claiming it violates the First Amendment and arguing that the stone, which is adorned with crosses and angels, blatantly promotes Christianity-an infringement on student's rights.
The group wrote a strongly-worded letter to the school requesting an investigation into the memorial and crosses near the school's entrance, adding that while they are "sensitive" to the possibility that the religious symbols are meant as a memorial, it is the school's constitutional obligation to find a religiously neutral way to honor someone.
"FFRF has no problem with religious displays on private property. It's only when the government is endorsing a religious message as is the case here that they are violating the constitution," says Sam Grover, Staff Attorney for Freedom from Religion Foundation
Not wanting to stir up trouble, Christy's family agreed to remove the crosses, but insisted angels remain on the memorial, as the beloved teacher used to collect angel figurines.
"She collected them, she had them in her classroom, she had them in her house, so it's something we thought would be a great addition," family friend Tracy Sadecky said
The family also released a letter to the local community, asking for their support regarding the issue.
"While JoAnn was an incredibly religious woman, this memorial is not a religious site," reads the letter. "This memorial simply honors an incredible woman who loved her community, and whose community loved her, and it does so, by honoring who she was and what she loved.
So, we encourage you, as a community, to stand up, and support the memorial of a woman who loved this community very much and chose to make it her home. There is no legal authority to require the removal of the angels, and we should not cowardly destroy JoAnn's memorial based on the narrow-minded views of a few."
While the school will address the fate of the memorial in an upcoming meeting, many in the community are infuriated by the atheist group's demands.
Rev. Charles Hicks, the pastor at Christy's church, said that while the memorial is a remembrance of a teacher and not an endorsement of Christianity, Christy was a follower of Christ whose beliefs affected every area of her life.
"It is a remembrance of who Joann Christy was," Hicks said. "And it is hard to separate the good that she did and her devotion to her Christian faith."