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High court affirms rule on grave markers

Justices say a city law banning upright religious symbols doesn't violate state law on religious freedom since flat markers are allowed.

By Associated Press
Published September 3, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - A Boca Raton ordinance that bans upright crosses and Stars of David in a city cemetery doesn't violate a state law designed to protect religious freedom, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The city law does not place a "substantial burden" on a religious practice, the state's high court concluded.

Justice Peggy Quince, who wrote for the court, quoted from the ruling by a federal judge who upheld the ordinance five years ago: "The city's regulations do not prohibit the plaintiffs from marking graves and decorating them with religious symbols."

The prohibition is just against vertical markers - those that stand up from the ground - not against crosses or Stars of David or other religious signs. Although the city limits gravestones to markers laid into the ground, those markers can be engraved with religious symbols.

Most of the 4,500 occupied graves at the Boca Raton Municipal Cemetery comply with the rules - and most families support the rules, according to the city.

In 1998, the city said it planned to remove vertical decorations because they make it difficult to cut the grass and perform other landscaping chores. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sued on behalf of 400 families with crosses, statues of saints and Stars of David.

The Florida League of Cities and the International Cemetery and Funeral Association filed briefs supporting the city's ordinance. Gov. Jeb Bush filed a brief supporting the ACLU. The case had been pending in Florida's high court for more than two years.

At the heart of the case is Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed in 1998 to mirror a similar federal law.

In April 1999, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp in West Palm Beach ruled the city's cemetery regulations do not violate state law.

The ACLU appealed the decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which sent the case to Florida's high court to rule on the scope of the Florida statute.

In Thursday's ruling, Quince wrote that state law required critics of the city's ordinance to show that it placed a substantial burden "on a practice motivated by a sincere religious belief."

The critics failed to meet that burden since they are free under the city ordinance to have religious symbols engraved on flat grave markers, the court found.

Chief Justice Barbara Pariente and Justices Charles Wells and Harry Lee Anstead signed the majority opinion. Justice R. Fred Lewis concurred in the result only and Justices Raoul Cantero and Kenneth Bell didn't participate in the case, which came to the court before their appointments.

Bruce Rogow, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing Boca Raton, said he was pleased Florida's high court had agreed that critics of the city law had interpreted the state law too broadly.

[Last modified September 3, 2004, 00:30:23]

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