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Spiritual ‘Shepherd' Image Comes Off C.R. Fire Department's Ladder Truck

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Psalm 23 caused a little ruckus at the Fire Department back in March after someone complained about a spiritual image on the aerial bucket of the department’s 100-foot ladder truck that quoted the religious psalm’s first words, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

According to the complaint, the image and wording on both sides of the truck’s bucket had a Christian flavor, particularly so because of a shadowy, staff-carrying, Jesus-like figure who stood at a firefighter’s side.

The Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission asked Fire Chief Mark English to consider making a change.

The fire department has complied. English said the department “quietly” painted over the spiritual images, replacing them with the department’s logo.

English said he consulted with the Civil Rights Commission, the department’s firefighters, city officials and others in the community before making the decision.

He said the department considered adding symbols from other religions onto the truck or removing what was there.

“And it was decided that the removal of the image was in the best interest of not causing any concern from anyone in the community,” English said. “We’re not here to offend anybody.”

English said there was a lot of discussion about the issue among firefighters, and he said they concluded, “We’ve got bigger things to deal with than this.”

“A lot of them took solace in the image. But they understand it. And again, we want to make sure we do our service and there are no distractions,” English said.

John-Paul Chaisson-Cardenas, executive director of the city’s Civil Rights Commission, said he liked the Fire Department’s decision to remove an image that seemed to exclude the beliefs of others in the community.

“Anything that promotes a welcoming, inclusive community is something I support,” Chaisson-Cardenas said. “It’s a pretty clean, pretty well-supported decision.”

English said he was a training officer at the fire department back in 1997 when officials needed to quickly replace a ladder truck that had stopped performing. The company’s longtime, preferred truck supplier, Pierce Manufacturing of Appleton. Wis., had a demonstration model with the spiritual images already in place that it sold to the city for a reduced price, English said.

“We did not ask for that,” he said of the spiritual images. “But it was not seen as a concern at the time so we didn’t ask for its removal. I don’t know if there was any attention paid to it.”

English said that the department is getting a new ladder truck next month, and the 1997 model with the freshly painted aerial bucket will be put into a reserve role in the department’s fleet of trucks.

Discussion over the fire truck image attracted plenty of calls from news organizations around the nation, said Greg Buelow, the city’s public safety communications director. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh featured the issue in his Limbaugh eLetter, saying, “The upshot: ... a shepherd and a psalm cannot be tolerated in America, 2014.”

Rick Scofield, retired Cedar Rapids fire captain and president of the Iowa Professional Fire Fighters union, said Cedar Rapids firefighters liked the image, but he said firefighters he’s talked to said removing the shepherd image was better than turning the fire truck into an “advertising board for religious advertising.”

“Firefighters adapt to anything. So they had to lose this off the side of their bucket truck. They move on,” Scofield 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 ...”

But the psalm starts this way: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. ... ”

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