ACLU Represents Jewish War Veterans in Effort to Relocate Mt. Soledad Cross
SAN DIEGO – The American Civil Liberties Union, the Jewish War Veterans and local residents announced today that they are suing the U.S. government and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, charging that the continued display of the Mt. Soledad Latin cross on federally owned land unlawfully entangles government with religion.
“The ACLU believes that religious symbols, even prominently displayed, are an important and constitutionally protected form of religious expression in the public sphere,” said David Blair-Loy, Legal Director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “There is a huge difference between families and religious communities expressing their religious beliefs and the U.S. government-using all of its power, authority, financing, and property-to promote the beliefs of one faith over all others.”
The ACLU filed the lawsuit, Jewish War Veterans et al. v. Rumsfeld, after the federal government, through an Act of Congress, recently obtained title to the Mt. Soledad memorial and its surrounding property by eminent domain. The ACLU asserts that this is part of a transparent effort to evade a long series of unfavorable state and federal court decisions declaring the placement of the cross on government property unconstitutional.
In legal papers, the ACLU noted that the cross on Mt. Soledad is a Latin cross that originated with the Roman Catholic Church and it does not represent all Christian denominations, let alone other religions or non-believers. Therefore, the government is not only favoring a particular religion but a sect within that denomination.
“The federal acquisition of the Latin cross does nothing to cure the ongoing constitutional violation,” said Daniel Mach, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “When any government entity-federal, state, or local-uses taxpayer funds to acquire and prominently display a religious symbol that is sacred to some, but not all religious believers, it disregards the rich religious diversity in our society that our founders strived hard to protect.”
The ACLU is representing three local individuals and the Washington, D.C. -based Jewish War Veterans, the oldest active national veterans’ service organization in the country. Part of the organization’s stated mission is to “encourage the doctrine of universal liberty, equal rights, and full justice to all men and women and to combat the powers of bigotry and darkness wherever originating and whatever the target.”
Many of JWV’s members oppose government funding that promotes religion, including the funding of the federal taking and continued display of the Latin cross on Mt. Soledad as the JWV did in similar prior legislation against the government in the 1980’s.
“Veterans of all faiths have served and died, and continue to serve and die in the war against terrorism, to uphold the tenets of our Constitution and keep our communities of faith safe from government interference. It is an affront to non-Christian veterans for their service to be commemorated by a cross,” said Norman Rosenshein, National Commander of the JWV. “We condemn this property transfer as an election-year attempt to circumvent previous rulings and feel confident that future judicial rulings will deem the cross to be unconstitutional.”
The group’s members include individuals based in the San Diego area who regularly view the Latin cross on Mt. Soledad and who are offended by the government’s communication of favoritism and endorsement of the majority faith at the expense of citizens and veterans of other faiths who died in the service of their country.
Dr. Richard Smith, a named plaintiff in the case, is a San Diego physician who has lived near Mt. Soledad for nearly 40 years. Having served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy from 1969 – 1971, he said he welcomes the idea of a war memorial, but added: “I feel that the government’s use of a single religious symbol devalues the service and sacrifices of Americans of all religious backgrounds.”
Dr. Smith is joined in the case by his wife, Mina Sagheb. Smith is Jewish and Sagheb is Muslim. Both object to the presence of the cross on public ground because they believe it undermines the contributions and sacrifices of non-Christians, especially soldiers. Also represented in the case is Judith M. Copeland, another San Diego resident concerned that the cross alienates Americans of diverse faiths.
The lawsuit notes that there is an entirely satisfactory constitutional remedy that had been agreed to by all parties in 2004 – to move the cross to a non-governmental site. A Presbyterian church several hundred feet from the current site had agreed to place the cross on their property, but the San Diego mayor and city council scuttled the settlement at the last minute.
The Mount Soledad cross has long served as the site for Christian religious observances. When the current cross was formally installed on Easter Sunday, 1954, it was dedicated to “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” No plaques recognizing veterans were installed until decades later, in 1992, several years after a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the cross was filed. Subsequent granite walls with individual veterans’ plaques, and an American flag, were not added until the year 2000.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. In addition to Blair-Loy and Mach, the plaintiffs were represented by Dr. T. Jeremy Gunn, Director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. A Stephen Hut, Jr.; Jonathan H. Siegelbaum and Ryan P. Phair of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP are co-counsel in the case.