Commission summoned over religious image on fire truck

The image came with the truck when the city purchased it new in 1997; a citizen has filed an informal complaint about it with the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission.

The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Psalm 23 is causing a stir at the Fire Department.

For 16 years, the first words of the Old Testament psalm — “The Lord is my shepherd” — have been emblazoned with an image of a firefighter on the bucket of the department’s 100-foot aerial ladder truck.

The image includes a shadow of a figure at the firefighter’s side, which some now have interpreted as the figure of a staff-carrying Jesus.

The image came with the truck, built by Pierce Manufacturing, Appleton, Wis., when the city purchased it new in 1997. Now, though, a citizen has filed an informal complaint about it with the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission.

John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas, the commission’s executive director, and Fire Chief Mark English are now in “amicable” discussions to either make the image more “inclusive” or remove it, both Chaisson-Cardenas and Greg Buelow, the city’s public safety spokesman, said on Monday.

Chaisson-Cardenas said the effort is “leaning (toward) and exploring” adding to the image and not removing it.

“The Cedar Rapids Fire Department is invested in supporting all faiths in our community,” English said in a statement.

Chaisson-Cardenas called the citizen complaint “a fair” one and one worth looking into.

He said the shadow figure next to the firefighter in the image is open to interpretation, but he said “a good amount of people” would conclude that it is intended to depict Jesus.

He said he has reached out to the local ecumenical council to see what additional symbols might be added to the fire truck to make it a “symbol of diversity.”

“Our office is always about welcoming communities,” Chaisson-Cardenas said. “So this could become an opportunity.”

At the same time, he said he appreciated how important symbols such as the one on the fire truck can be to firefighters.

“Especially for those people who are running into fires on our behalf,” he said. “They are there when we have emergencies. So we also have to be accommodating to them.”

But that accommodation, he added, needed to take into consideration all the faiths “within the fire department itself.”

The Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission does not investigate city departments because of an obvious conflict of interest, the commission’s executive director said. Even so, he said he can work to help figure out a solution without a formal investigation.

He said volunteers and donations likely would provide the resources if the decision is to add to the image on the fire truck, while city resources likely would be used if the image is erased, he said.

The well-known Psalm 23 reads, in part, “… Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me … .”

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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