A banner installed following 9/11 by veterans who worked at the Pittsburg Post Office was removed from the building Wednesday morning following a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation

PITTSBURG — Weathered wood of a different shade on the south side of Pittsburg’s post office marks the spot where veterans once celebrated their unified patriotism.

One by one, eight postal employees who had served their country drove the screws into the building shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, hanging a sign with a flag proclaiming “God bless America.” 

“It was something we felt like we had to do, needed to do to show the rest of the country that we cared,” said Doug Brisendine, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and retired letter carrier.

“We were proud to do it. Most of us there were ex-service men,” said Jay Scott, also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a retired letter carrier.

“The U.S. had just suffered a horrific attack and 3,000 Americans lost their lives,” said Ed Hinde, who was postmaster when the banner was installed, and who has since retired. “The employees as a group came to me and said, ‘We would like to do something.’ It was truly born as an act of patriotism by the employees of the United States Postal Service.”

Hinde said the group pooled its resources, with employees paying half out of their pockets and him chipping in the other half. They then had an informal ceremony in which veterans, including Brisendine and Scott, installed the sign. Vietnam combat veteran Bill Jackson, who since has died, installed the final screw.

The sign has celebrated their patriotism for nearly 15 years

Last summer, however, the local branch of the post office received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, citing United States Postal Regulations that “prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property.”

Madeline Ziegler, a legal fellow for FFRF, said the complaint originated locally.

“We got a complaint from a Pittsburg resident who uses the post office who wanted some help with a religious sign,” Ziegler said, adding the sign violates the separation of church and state.

“The government can’t show favoritism toward any particular religion, but it also can’t show favoritism of religion over non-religion,” she said.

Ziegler sent a follow-up letter in September, and local postal employees learned Tuesday that the sign would be taken down.

“They’re free to post that on their church grounds, at their homes, at the Legion and myriad private locations,” Ziegler said. “The problem comes when the post office, which is a government entity, allows a religious sentiment to be placed on federal property.”

A small crowd that gathered locally included those who helped put the banner up, representatives from the American Legion and members of the public.

Many expressed dismay as the sign was removed. 

“This group got their nose in this situation when it had nothing to do with religion,” Hinde said. “It’s not religious. It’s just a patriotic act by a group of people trying to display unity.”

Ray Vail, state commander with the American Legion Post 182, agreed. 

“It’s just a shame the way the country is going anymore,” he said. “They’re teaching people not to be patriotic. They’re teaching people not to believe in God and not to believe in this country.”

Area residents also offered their support for the sign.

“I’m an American who believes in God,” said Janet Butler, who visits the post office daily. “I asked the lady inside what was going on and she told me what was going on, so I decided to come outside and voice my opinion about it. If they don’t like it, don’t look at it. We have our rights, just like they have their rights.”

The sign was taken down by postal maintenance workers under orders from their superiors, and will be placed in storage. However, several of those gathered expressed hope that they would see it again one day.

Hinde said he will not be taking on that fight, but others may.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if someone doesn’t come up with a different location for the sign,” he said.

This effort could come from some of the veterans’ groups that were represented Wednesday morning.

“Right now, there’s quite a few veterans who are here who do not like the idea of taking the sign down, because it was put up right after 9/11, so it’s  a special thing for everyone else,” said John Swartz, with the American Legion Riders. “It means a lot to veterans, and it doesn’t matter what war.”

In the course of the morning, veterans’ groups reached out to Lynn Jenkins, (R-Kansas), who praised the original initiative and encouraged the United States Post Office to rethink it’s decision.

"I thank our veterans in the Pittsburg community for coming together and expressing their faith in America by purchasing and hanging this banner outside the Pittsburg Post Office,” Jenkins said. “It has been proudly displayed for more than a decade and I find it sad that our local post office would be forced to bend to the whims of an outside organization, such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Seeking the removal of this patriotic banner is a classic solution in search of a problem and I urge the United States Postal Service to rethink their decision as this banner means more than just words to our veterans and community members.”

Bob Munson, state vice commander of the American Legion Post 64, said those who gathered or made calls hope their efforts will send a message.

“I’m down here because I don’t think it’s right, but sometimes people do things that aren’t right,” he said.

 — Sarah Gooding is a staff writer for The Morning Sun and can be reached at sgooding@morningsun.net.