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American Legion enters Mt. Soledad case, argues other cross memorials are in danger

SAN DIEGO (BP)–The day after San Diego city officials sent a request to the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of a federal judge’s order to remove the cross at the Mount Soledad National War Memorial, the American Legion filed a friend of the court brief June 28 in hopes of preventing further attacks on memorials containing religious imagery or references.

“We are particularly concerned in this case that a dangerous precedent could be set that would endanger veterans’ memorials across America, perhaps even the 9,000 crosses that mark the final resting places of our World War II heroes at Normandy Beach,” Thomas L. Bock, national commander for the American Legion, said in a news release.

Supporters of the Mount Soledad cross kicked efforts into high gear after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals June 21 chose not to suspend a $5,000 daily fine that a federal judge will impose if the cross is not moved by Aug. 1. The 29-foot cross was dedicated in 1954 as a memorial to those who fought and died in the Korean War.

The American Legion is the world’s largest veteran service organization, and in their brief they noted that America has a long history of memorializing its war dead with a cross.

They gave as examples the Argonne Cross in Arlington National Cemetery honoring Americans who died in France during World War I, the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice at Arlington honoring those who joined with the Canadian Armed Forces to fight in WWI before the United States officially joined the war, and the Cathedral of the Pines war memorial in New Hampshire, which features a prominent cross.

“Crosses mark the graves of countless soldiers in military cemeteries throughout the country,” the brief states. “In fact, of the 38 emblems of belief permitted on headstones supplied by the Veterans Administration, 15 are crosses.”

The American Legion brief also noted that communities across the nation have “erected veterans memorials that bear religious inscriptions or invoke religious imagery,” one of the most famous being the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington, which bears the inscription, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

“Disallowing crosses and other religious imagery and references at veterans memorials would lead to wide scale sandblasting of these and countless other memorials across the country,” the brief says.

“… The nature of armed combat for the survival of our civilization and national heritage requires us to search within ourselves and our culture to identify the common threads that bind us together, not seek to create social division by tearing down the memorials that stand for the sacrificial contributions of countless veterans and their families.”

Liberty Legal Institute represents the American Legion and filed the brief jointly with the California American Legion, which is represented in the Mount Soledad case by the Alliance Defense Fund.

Mount Soledad has penetrated all three branches of government in Washington, with President Bush and the House of Representatives said to be considering action on the case in addition to the Supreme Court. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said June 27 that Bush is concerned about the cross.

“Right now, the president and the administration are actively reviewing both administrative and legislative options for preserving that veterans’ war memorial,” Snow said in response to a question about Mount Soledad.

Meanwhile, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif., introduced a bill June 26 proposing that the federal government take over the war memorial and transfer it to the Defense Department, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. This marks the third time Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has attempted to protect the cross through federal action, and he is asking citizens throughout the nation to contact their representatives and urge a quick vote on the issue.

“The fight to save the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial is not about religion,” Hunter said in a statement June 27. “It’s about protecting a symbol of our freedom and honoring those who have chosen to defend it at all costs. Removing this long recognized and respected landmark is an insult to the men and women memorialized on its walls and the service and sacrifice of those who have worn a uniform in defense of our nation.”

Hunter’s bill is co-sponsored by fellow California Congressmen Brian Bilbray and Darrell Issa. Bilbray said, “We must defend and protect the memorial for those who defended and protected us,” and Issa said the country’s founding fathers did not envision a nation “devoid of religious expression,” The Union-Tribune reported.

In additional to Liberty Legal Institute and the Alliance Defense Fund, several other conservative legal groups have joined the fight to save the Mount Soledad cross. The Thomas More Law Center filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court on behalf of San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial, asking that the federal judge’s ruling be suspended.

The American Center for Law and Justice filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court June 28, also asking for a stay in the case.

“This is a case that deserves the attention of the nation’s highest court,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, said. “With the clock running — and a federal appeals court that rejected the city’s request without giving it proper consideration — the Supreme Court has an important opportunity to step in and put the brakes on a legal process that fast-tracks the removal of the cross. … This unprecedented rush to remove the cross is senseless and we believe there should be adequate time to permit the appeals process to unfold.”

Twenty-two members of Congress have signed onto the ACLJ’s brief, which states that the tradition of using crosses at veterans’ memorials is “fully consistent” with the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause cases.

The Mount Soledad cross came under fire from a San Diego atheist, Philip Paulson, and his American Civil Liberties Union-funded lawyer, James McElroy, more than a decade ago. In 1989, Paulson filed suit against the city of San Diego, claiming that the presence of the cross on city property violated the California constitution’s provision on separation of church and state. A 17-year legal battle ensued.

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  • Erin Roach