Ken Klukowski is Director, Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared on Breitbart.com, December 12, 2013.
After 24 years of litigation, a federal court revealed in an emotional hearing that it has ordered the famous Mount Soledad Cross removed from a veterans memorial, holding it is a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Since 1913, a cross has stood as the centerpiece of the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, surrounded by nearly 3,000 granite plaques, individually honoring war heroes from every American war, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The structure is a 29-foot Latin cross, which was erected in 1954. For much of this time, it was in a city park in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego. Then, in 1989, the ACLU filed a lawsuit, arguing that allowing a cross on government land violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. This memorial has been embroiled in litigation ever since.
In 2004, Congress passed a law making this city-owned display a "national memorial honoring veterans of the United States Armed Forces," dedicated as a tribute to those service members "who sacrificed their lives in the defense of the United States." Congress officially found that the "patriotic and inspirational symbolism of the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial provides solace to the families and comrades of the veterans it memorializes." Although the Latin cross is identifiably a Christian symbol, Congress noted that the memorial is also "replete with secular symbols" and symbols of other faiths, such as 18 Stars of David. In this pluralistic context, the cross plays the role of commemorating veterans' service and death.
That law sparked the latest round of litigation in federal court. In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed its prior decision on this display, holding that because of the cross, the memorial "primarily conveys a message of endorsement of religion." Specifically, it "projects a government endorsement of Christianity."
The United States Supreme Court denied review in 2012 but sent a written message noting that the lower courts were still considering whether the memorial could be modified in a way that preserves its character. In a statement by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court signaled that it would seriously consider taking the case if these additional efforts did not produce a positive outcome.
After almost two years of additional proceedings, on Dec. 12 the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California reluctantly held that under controlling precedent from the Ninth Circuit, the district judge still had no choice but to declare the cross an endorsement of Christianity. He has ordered it removed within 90 days.
Judge Larry Alan Burns read the order from the bench in court and appeared to choke up as he ordered the memorial's destruction, observers told Breitbart News. Burns then issued a stay of his decision to give the memorial cross's lawyers time to appeal back to the Ninth Circuit and, if necessary, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Originally, the U.S. Justice Department defended the cross memorial. However, when President Barack Obama was elected, the government's defense of the memorial under Attorney General Eric Holder seemed to become lackluster, and the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial Association stepped in to bolster the defense. They are represented by Allyson Ho, a partner at the powerhouse firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius (Ted Cruz was a partner at that firm prior to his Senate election, and in fact Cruz and Ho were the co-chairs of the firm's Supreme Court practice group), and Jeff Mateer and Hiram Sasser fromLiberty Institute, one of America's foremost religious-liberty law firms.
Hiram Sasser tells Breitbart News, "We will continue to fight for this memorial and the selfless sacrifice and service of all the millions of veterans it represents; it is the least we can do for those who gave so much to us all."