Fifty-five years ago, a 43-foot Latin cross was dedicated to “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” during a religious ceremony on a hill in San Diego.
Unveiled on Easter Sunday, the towering emblem serves as a site for Easter Sunrise services, prayer meetings, religious events and Christian weddings and baptisms, as many would expect.
The cross, which stands on public land, also serves as the government’s chosen symbol to honor deceased military veterans for their service – something that Vietnam veteran Rich Gillock would never expect.
“The country that I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend did not demand religious conformity from everyone,” said Gillock, an Orange County, Calif., resident. “This cross as a memorial doesn’t really line up with what we believe in this country, which is that we are free to practice whatever religion we choose and the government should not have anything to do with it.
“I don’t even see it as truly a veterans’ memorial,” he continued. “There are a lot of veterans who are not Christian.”
This Latin cross has been at the center of an ongoing debate for 20 years. Made of steel-reinforced concrete, it stands atop an 822-foot hill that is part of the Mt. Soledad Nature Park, a government facility that has been dedicated as a veterans’ memorial since 1914.
To many veterans, the Mt. Soledad cross is offensive, declaring that non-Christian veterans are outsiders and failing to honor them for the service they provided to their country.
“A memorial should signify the return or safety of the men in service,” said War World II veteran Bob Zweiman, former National Commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America. “But this does not represent the diversity of the military.”
According to information provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, 29 percent of those currently serving in the U.S. military are not Christian. To many veterans, using Christianity’s central symbol as a veterans’ memorial is just another example of government favoring one religious belief over others.
“It sends the wrong message,” said Vietnam veteran Dennis Mansker, president of Americans United’s South Sound Chapter in Washington state. “There is nothing they could do at a war memorial that would take away from feelings for what I have done for this country, but this memorial does offend me, as if I am being put upon, and that one religious belief is trying to overwhelm others.”
Despite this discomfort echoed by many veterans, and the fact that nearly one in three American soldiers is not Christian, the city of San Diego, the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association and a coalition of Religious Right organizations have pushed for this cross to stay standing, while evading years of court rulings that demand it be removed.
Religious Right groups have tried to depict the controversy over the Mt. Soledad cross as an attack on religion. Horace Cooper, senior fellow for the right-wing American Civil Rights Union, argued in an op-ed for The Washington Times that the Mt. Soledad cross should remain because it “reinforces religious freedom” and honors “our Christian heritage.”
“Unfortunately, for some this heritage is merely a worrisome nuisance, particularly when it involves the cross,” wrote Cooper. “Despite the sacrifice and bravery and overt religious motivations of so many of the earliest immigrants to our land, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union continue to pursue their efforts to suppress that memory.”
Yet when it comes to defending the cross in court, the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association and its allies seem to suppress the memory that the cross is a Christian symbol. According to William Kellogg, president of the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association, the memorial has always been for veterans, not Christians.
Until recently, no court had ever bought that argument. But in July, U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns said the Latin cross sends a non-religious message of “military service, death and sacrifice.” Burns ruled the Latin cross could stay standing because it is not a religious symbol, but rather a symbol of American patriotism.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed an appeal on behalf of the Jewish War Veterans and other individuals to overturn the lower court’s decision. In the late 1980s, the Jewish War Veterans successfully sued in Jewish War Veterans v. United States to have a Latin cross removed from federal property at Hawaii’s Camp H.M. Smith and hopes this case brings about the same result.
“The cross ostensibly stands as a war memorial to all veterans, although it is a symbol of one specific religion and not of the diversity of religions to which our veterans’ community belongs and has belonged since the earliest days of our country,” the group says on its Web site. “All of the court decisions in such cases, including the final decision in the Camp Smith case, have upheld the principle that such a display represents a violation of the separation of church and state.”
Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Jan. 14 arguing that the Mt. Soledad cross is unconstitutional and an inappropriate memorial for veterans in a religiously diverse nation. Joining Americans United on the brief are Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America; Interfaith Alliance; Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers; Military Religious Freedom Foundation; Progressive Christians Uniting; and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
“That the cross is used in a veterans’ memorial here does not make it secular,” asserts the brief. “In fact, as a burial marker, the cross has been used almost exclusively for Christian burials in order to convey a sectarian message – that the deceased lived and died as a member of a particular Christian community. And as a monument in a veterans’ memorial, the cross conveys a similar sectarian message: that only fallen Christian soldiers are being remembered. Given the ‘commanding presence’ of the Mt. Soledad cross in relation to the rest of the memorial, the primary message that this cross communicates is religious, not secular.”
Secularizing the central symbol of Christianity is the newest tactic by anti-separationist groups to preserve government displays of the cross and America’s “Christian heritage.” Americans United is trying to counter that legal movement, and hopes to stop it, beginning in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals when the court hears the Mt. Soledad case.
AU’s brief, prepared by AU Madison Fellow Jef Klazen in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, explains that history “leaves no doubt that the cross is a uniquely religious symbol, one synonymous with Christianity.”
The brief also describes how Judge Burns’ attempted secularization of the Latin cross offends Christians who celebrate the cross as a central emblem of their faith.
“Not only is it impermissible for the government to tell non-Christians that they are unwelcome in their community by giving pride of place to Christian imagery,” the brief asserts, “but it is equally improper for the government to tell Christians that their sacred symbols are fit for public display because they have been officially transformed into secular objects.”
The controversy over the Mt. Soledad cross has a long history. The City of San Diego authorized the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association to erect the cross on city land in 1952. In 1989, the ACLU brought the first lawsuit to remove the cross, resulting in both the U.S. district court and the 9th Circuit ordering removal of the symbol.
Judge Robert R. Beezer, writing for the 9th Circuit in Ellis v. City of La Mesa, said the memorial was “a sectarian war memorial that carries an inherently religious message and creates an appearance of honoring only those servicemen of that particular religion.”
After this decision, the city tried to avoid removing the cross by selling the land under the cross to the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association through a ballot initiative. Judge Gordon Thompson ruled this to be unconstitutional. Writing for the court in Murphy v. Bilbray, he said that the city “clearly show[ed] a governmental preference for the Christian religion” by “taking the position of trying to ‘save’ such a preeminent Christian symbol.” The 9th Circuit later agreed with Thompson in Paulson v. City of San Diego.
After a series of other similar tactics to avoid the court-ordered removal of the cross, three San Diego-area members of Congress introduced a bill that would immediately transfer the memorial to the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, giving the federal government ownership of the memorial and allowing the City of San Diego to avoid complying with court orders.
Rep. Duncan Hunter was the chief architect of the bill, which passed the House by a 349-74 vote and the Senate unanimously. He claimed the day Bush signed the bill was “a great day for America’s veterans and the San Diego community.”
“The president’s endorsement of this legislation,” he said, “validates years of tireless work and sends a clear message that America appreciates and respects its military men and women.”
Thomas Bock, president of the American Legion, also praised Bush for “walking in the ‘footsteps of founders (of the country)’ in recognizing the sanctity of this veterans’ memorial.
“The religious symbols that mark the graves and honor the sacrifices of our fallen heroes – a cross, a Star of David, or other identification of faith in God – are sacred to Americans,” he said. “As a grateful nation, we must ensure that the memory of our heroes will never be dishonored by those who would seek to remove them.”
Like many trying to “save” the Mt. Soledad cross, Bock confused a government-endorsed Christian memorial with religious markers on fallen soldiers’ gravestones. Americans United has supported religious markers on individual gravestones, since individual soldiers’ families can choose the symbol of their own religion or not choose any symbol at all.
In the past, Americans United successfully sued the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs for denying relatives of fallen Wiccan soldiers the right to inscribe their own religious symbol on government-issued memorial markers. (See “Bush Administration Approves Wiccan Symbol For Use On Memorial Markers Of Fallen Service Personnel,” June 2007 Church & State.)
The Jewish War Veterans, a plaintiff in this case, also supports the use of religious symbols on individual headstones in federal cemeteries.
“The individual symbol on each grave is not to be construed as an endorsement of one religion over the others,” the group says on its Web site. “The range of religions represented on these headstones is a testament to the religious diversity of this country. It is a pictorial representation that, in our country, service people from all religions have fought and died to defend ingrained principles of liberty and democracy which must be the ground rock of our Nation.”
That is what the plaintiffs would like any veterans’ memorial to do – represent the diversity of this country – but the Mt. Soledad memorial simply does not, said AU’s Luchenitser.
“The towering cross, visible for miles around, sends a message that the government favors and endorses Christianity,” he said. “It fails to honor the sacrifices of the many non-Christian soldiers who have given their lives in the service of their country.”
The outcome of the Mt. Soledad case is particularly important because of an apparent budding trend of courts finding that the cross is secular and upholding government display.
In Utah, the Utah Highway Patrol Association decided to erect 12-foot crosses along highways to memorialize state highway patrol officers who died in the line of duty. A federal district judge ruled in November 2007 that this was a permissible practice, ruling that the cross is a secular symbol of death.
The case was appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Americans United also filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking for the lower court decision to be overturned.
Supporters of the Mt. Soledad cross are hoping that their losing record in the courts will turn around because they are dealing with a different defendant. A lawsuit against the federal government instead of a California local government is an easier hurdle, they say, since the religious liberty provisions of the federal Constitution are less explicit than the church-state mandates of the California Constitution.
But that may just be wishful thinking. In the past, even the conservative wing of the U.S. Supreme Court has pointed to the Latin cross as a prototypical example of an unconstitutional religious display, AU states in its brief. (County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union)
“Courts have repeatedly recognized that the cross is a sacred symbol with profound religious significance,” asserts the ACLU’s appellant brief. “Before this case, no federal court had ever upheld the government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land as constitutional.”
With that knowledge, Americans United and its allies are hopeful that the 9th Circuit can finally put this 20-year controversy to rest.
“This is a time when American soldiers of all faiths and of no faith – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, atheists, and agnostics – are giving up their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan for their country,” said Luchenitser. “The government should recognize their sacrifices in a manner that honors fallen soldiers of all faiths and beliefs about religion, instead of commemorating only those of the Christian religion.”