Jefferson Banner - Opinion
John Foust - Countryside Cross
Jefferson Banner / Opinion / John Foust / Countryside Cross


A cross and altar in a public building, bought with public funds?


On May 27, Daily Union reporter Ryan Whisner asked me about my complaint about the cross and altar at Countryside. I sent this response. It is a good quick summary of the issue and my reasons for asking the Countryside Board of Trustees to change their policy. It also includes my simple solution to the issue.

On June 3, the Board of Trustees held a public forum on this issue. I was unable to attend, but my statement was distributed to the group. Read it here. It is a good summary of common questions.

On June 9, I sent a letter-to-the-editor to area newspapers to clarify several misconceptions.

Below is a longer explanation of the course of events. For even more detail, read my statements to the Board on March 18, April 23, and an April 28 follow-up.

In short, my objection centers on the use of public funds for purchasing these symbols, then displaying them in the essentially public space of the multi-purpose room.

- John

On February 10, 2004, I went to the new Countryside Home facility to attend the forum for the mayoral candidates for the City of Jefferson. I had heard that Countryside was eager to open its new building to the public and to open its meeting spaces to civic events.

I was surprised to see an altar and a large cross at the front of the room. I felt like I was in a Lutheran church, yet I knew I was in a public facility. I knew that according to the First Amendment of the Constitution, it is not the job of government to be assisting religions.

It took some sleuthing. On February 11 I sent an email to the County's corporation counsel (the County's staff attorney), the chair of the Countryside Board of Trustees, and the County Administrator, asking about this issue.

No one told me that the Board of Trustees had added this issue on the agenda for their February 20 meeting. The minutes are not detailed, so it's hard to know what was said. The minutes say "The issue of the cross in the chapel was discussed. (Countryside Board Chair) Mrs. Schmeling suggested a compromise - if we have a public meeting not directly related to the residents we could move the altar / cross however, we will wait for direction from (Corporation Counsel) Phil Ristow."

On March 9, the Daily Union ran a picture of the cross with the caption "Immanuel Methodist Church of Jefferson recently donated $1,000 to Countryside Home of Jefferson, essentially covering the cost of a new stained glass-backed cross for the Countryside chapel. The Rev. Nancy Carmichael, the church's pastor, said that the church had received some bequest money and wanted to take a portion of that and pass it on to the community.  The chapel is used by Countryside residents of all different traditions and faiths.  It hosts services put on by many area churches in order that people who can no longer get out to attend church anymore can continue to worship as they wish."

I wanted to verify exactly how the cross and altar came to be. The Union caption wasn't detailed enough to explain whether the cross had been purchased before the donations were accepted, or vice-versa. It seems to say that the $1,000 didn't entirely cover the cost of the cross.

On March 11, I received an email from Countryside Administrator Earlene Ronk. In it, she said "The cross was fully funded by donations, no public money was used.  The church donated most of the money, but a private individual donated the balance.  This was actually done months ago, but we finally got around to acknowledging the donation publicly this past week."

On March 11, Earlene Ronk also explained "F248", a section of the Federal OBRA nursing home regulations. This regulation tells how nursing homes must make available activities that serve the interests of the residents. Buried in this regulation's suggested implementation is the phrase "Review the activity calendar for the month prior to the survey to determine if the formal activity program: [...] reflects the cultural and religious interests of the resident population".

I fail to see how this regulation justifies the cross and altar. It was clear that Countryside was probably in compliance with this regulation because of the three churches that offer services to the residents during the week.

On March 18, Rev. Nancy Carmichael confirmed that "the cross was purchased by Countryside, and an amount was given in their adopt an item brochure. We donated the cash to the county. [...] I believe that the cross was decided upon by a committee."

On March 18, I started my search for the hard facts. I wrote, "I'd like to begin to make some open record requests to get copies of any documents that might help me understand who chose the cross, and why they decided to choose, buy it and pay for it this way. If there was a committee as Rev. Carmichael described, I'd like to get a copy of their agendas and minutes for the relevant meetings.  If there was a brochure as Rev. Carmichael described, I'd like to get a copy of that, too.  I'd like to learn how this expenditure was authorized."

On March 19, the Board of Trustees held their monthly meeting. I read this statement.

On April 22, 2004, the afternoon before the next monthly meeting of the Board of Trustees, I received a packet of copied receipts, checks and purchase orders that explained the sequence of events. I was told the packet was ready at about 2 p.m. the afternoon before the next day's 8:30 a.m. meeting.

The documentation tells a far different story than I'd been told so far! Not only was there a $1,000 cross, but there was $3,000 for an altar and $2,000 for a lectern - all to the same artist, Morning Glory Studios of Lodi, WI.

Now the County had spent $6,000 from the Wish List Fund. On April 22, Earlene Ronk said "the original wish list fund had $13,000 in it." She added that "the original altar from the old building was brought over here, but had to be made much smaller."

The documents also showed that the acquisition of these items were carried out by the (former) Countryside Director and the Volunteer Fundraising Coordinator before January 2003, many months before specific cross donations in September and December 2003. Someone had made a decision to spend nearly half of the Wish List Fund on these religious items.

On April 23, 2004, the Board of Trustees held their monthly meeting. I read this statement, in which I describe the larger picture of the $6,000 spending. Until this point, I sincerely believe that the Board did not understand exactly how much money was spent, and when.

Based on statements made at the April 23 meeting, I composed this April 28 follow-up. It also seems that someone produced comb-bound "Countryside Hymnal" songbooks for the chapel. No one knew where they'd come from.

At their May meeting, the Board decided to hold a public forum to discuss the issue on June 3 at 6 p.m. Unfortunately, I will be attending my son's kindergarten graduation ceremony at that time.

On May 27, reporter Ryan Whisner asked to speak with me about the public hearing. I was out of the office, so later in the day I sent this response. It is a good summary of the issue and my reasons for asking the Countryside Board of Trustees to change their policy.

Throughout my examination of this issue, the Countryside staff seems to want to promote the notion that the cross, altar and lectern were purchased with donated funds, in particular, with donations from Immanuel United Methodist Church and a Countryside resident.

However, the facts show that in 2003 the cross, altar and lectern were sought and purchased at least nine months before any donations were specifically given for these items.

  • Morning Glory Studio issued a proposal dated January 26, 2003 for an altar at $3,000, a cross at $1,000 and a lectern at $2,000. It was signed and accepted by then-director Michael Gernetzke on March 25, 2003. A downpayment check for $3,000 titled "Countryside Home / Resident's Fund Account" was paid to the order of Countryside Home on March 18, 2003. The County issued a corresponding check to Morning Glory Studios on March 31.
  • In July 2003, the Fundraising Chair for Countryside Home sent out a letter on Countryside Home letterhead requesting donations for the "Wish List" of items to decorate the new facility. The facility was expected to be open in October 2003. The list includes the cross, altar and lectern at their invoiced prices. Many other items are listed with prices, too, such as benches, planters, a movie projector, and bulletin boads.
  • On July 31, 2003, Morning Glory Studios issued an invoice for the remaining $1,500 due on the altar modifications. On August 8, the County issued a check to Morning Glory Studios. On August 12, a Resident's Fund check was issued in this amount, paid to Countryside Home.
  • On September 9, 2003, a Resident's Fund receipt was issued to an apparent resident of Countryside for $1,000, noted as a donation for the wish list cross. Two fields were blacked-out on this record: one of the "received from" name, the other most of the "for" field, except for the words "Wish List / Cross". Countryside claims that because this donation mentions the names of residents in Countryside, they are required by HIPAA regulations to omit the names... I disagree. I don't think Countryside can have it both ways. These residents made donations to a Wish List Fund run by the County. It's not related to their residency or medical care.
  • On September 29, 2003, Morning Glory Studios issued an invoice for the remaining $1,500 due on the lectern and the cross. On October 10, the County issued a check to Morning Glory Studios. On October 15, a Resident's Fund check was issued in this amount, paid to Countryside Home. On October 17, 2003, a Countryside Home receipt shows the acceptance of the $1,500 from the Wish List fund.
  • On December 3, 2003, a Resident's Fund receipt was issued to Immanuel United Methodist Church for $1,000, noted as a donation for the wish list cross.

On May 29, Ron Wegner sent this email to more than 30 residents, and asked them to forward it to their friends. Wegner referenced his email during his statement in the public forum on June 3.

On June 25, I addressed the Board of Trustees at their monthly meeting. My statement is here.

On June 25, the Board approved a new policy that eliminated any public use of the community room space. The new policy differentiates the single room into three parts: the chapel, the community room and the multi-purpose room. By closing the divider, the end with the cross is considered the chapel. The end with the television is considered the community room. When the divider is open, the whole room is called the multi-purpose room. The new policy also gives all discretion to "management" as to decide whether the divider is open, closed or whether the cross and altar are covered.

I think the Board punted. The new policy makes very few changes to current practice. They backed away from making any solid decisions about this issue.

However, the new policy fails to address my concerns. Denying public meetings only addresses a very small part of the problem. In reality, the public visits Countryside every day, including visitors and staff.

Leaving the decision up to "management" is what got Countryside into this mess in the first place! After all, it was "management" that purchased the cross and altar. I think the Board of Trustees decided to do nothing. They've changed one room into three rooms in name only. They leave everything to the discretion of the administrator, who in turn can leave the room divider open and the altar and cross uncovered at any time she wants based on her impression of the resident's desires. Earlene Ronk has always supported leaving everything open and uncovered. That's what will happen. This problem is tougher than that. The residents are not in charge at Countryside. They are not delegated to resolve complicated legal issues.

Spot-checks of the multi-purpose room since then have shown that the divider is open, the cross uncovered and no activity taking place in the room that would justify its open arrangement as the "multi-purpose room" as opposed to a separated chapel.

The Board of Trustees is supposed to be in charge and guide the administrator, but now they've turned
a blind eye. First they did nothing about the installation of the curtain in front of the cross. Now a new plaque was installed below the cross, claiming it was donated. Again they defer to the administrator's discretion and claimed it's not a matter for the Board's oversight. I think it is. Who is ultimately responsible?

The policy is still contradictory. It says "The Multi-Purpose Room is for residents and is considered private. This space is not available for public meetings." However, at the June 25 meeting, the Board suggested that the two rooms could be opened to become the single multi-purpose room for an evening dance and the cross and altar could remain in place and uncovered. If visitors can attend the dance, the policy has done nothing. It does nothing for any resident or citizen who thinks a prominent cross and altar are out of place at a dance in a public building.

If they intend to allow the "management" to leave the space wide open, how can they seriously suggest that the multi-purpose room is "private"? They want to bar public meetings from the whole room, allow them in the "community room" side when the divider is close, yet want to give special preference to allow public religious celebrations in the chapel's half of the same room or even overflow into the full space.

I was glad to hear the County's attorney confirm that it is not legally reasonable to suggest that these items were donated when in fact they were purchased with County funds. Using donated funds does not create a magic loophole in the Constitution. By this argument, the County could build and staff a cathedral if they only used donated funds.

On July 19, 2004, I asked Earlene Ronk if there has ever been a survey completed regarding religious preference. Previously, I had been told it had never been tallied. Her response is as follows:

The religion count as of today with 120 beds filled:

  • Baptist 2
  • Catholic 30
  • Christian 1
  • Congregational 3
  • Lutheran 62
  • Methodist 6
  • Moravian 2
  • None Listed 11
  • Protestant 3

Several weeks ago, we went to those where no religion was listed (no affiliation or preference). In one case, the resident is not alert enough to know and she has a guardian that also does not know a religious affiliation. We did tastefully ask the others if they had any concerns about the display of the cross in the chapel. All indicated it was not a problem for them."

I humbly suggest that given the forcefulness and anger exhibited at the public forum, that any Countryside resident who expressed anything but compliance with the exhibition of the cross would be subject to immense pressure from other residents if not from staff members.