Jewish War Veterans of the USA v. Hagel

BACKGROUND

Since 1990, the ACLU continues to seek a constitutional solution to a long-standing controversy involving the Mt. Soledad Cross, a Christian cross sitting on top of La Jolla’s highest hill, and on public land (first a city-owned park, later “taken” by the federal government) in Jewish War Veterans of the USA v. Hagel. The cross has served as the site for Christian religious observances, and is known by many San Diegans as “The Easter Cross.” When the cross was dedicated on Easter Sunday 1954 to “Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” it was declared a tribute to veterans of WWI, WWII, and the Korean Conflict, but no plaque was installed until two years after a lawsuit was initiated by a Vietnam veteran and self-described humanist and atheist, Phillip Paulson, claiming the religious symbol’s presence on public land violated provisions of the U.S. and California constitutions prohibiting the government from favoring one religioin over another. It wasn’t until 2000 that an American flag and a series of granite walls displaying individual veterans’ plaques were added. 

The ACLU fully supports the rights of Christians and people of all faiths to actively practice their religions freely, without government constraint. We firmly believe that the right of religious expression in the public sphere is a core principle of our Constitution.

We also believe that it is people of faith—not governments, legislators, or political majorities—who should be responsible for expressing religious beliefs.

LITIGATION

In 1989, Phillip Paulson, a self-described humanist and atheist, and a Vietnam War veteran, filed a lawsuit claiming the religious symbol’s presence on state land violated provisions of the U.S. and California constitutions prohibiting the government from favoring one religion over another. (Murphy v. Bilbray, 782 F. Supp. 1420, 1438)

The course of the litigation is covered in a timeline of the Mt. Soledad Controversy. The litigation continues to this day.  Over the years, the ACLU participated in this case with Paulson’s original attorney, James McElroy, who continues to seek a constitutionally sound resolution to this issue.

CO-COUNSEL

Co-counsel in the legal action include Daniel Mach, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; A. Stephen Hut, Jr.; Mark C. Fleming, Adam Raviv, Laura M. Hussain, and Matthew J. Thome, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP. Plaintiffs in a companion lawsuit challenging the display were represented by James McElroy.

CASE DEVELOPMENTS

The course of the litigation is covered in a timeline of the Mt. Soledad Controversy.

PERTINENT DOCUMENTS

  • Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision declaring government display of Mt. Soledad Cross unconstitutional, January 4, 2011
  • Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive and Relief, August 24, 2006

MEDIA