Ten Commandments monument in Fargo ND does not violate First Amendment Establishment Clause

by Gary Taylor

Red River Freethinkers v. City of Fargo
(Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 25, 2014)

A stone monument depicting the Ten Commandments, which was given to the City of Fargo by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1958, has been the subject of over a decade of litigation.  In addition to the Ten Commandments, the monument includes other symbols such as the American flag and the “all-seeing eye” atop a pyramid. In 1961, the monument was installed in its current location on the City Plaza, “a grassy, open area mall” on City property, where it sat without legal challenge for over forty years.  In 2002, the Red River Freethinkers sued the city seeking a declaration that the display of the Ten Commandments violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.  The federal district court found in favor of the city on the grounds that because of the purpose of the gift and the other secular symbols and messages on the monument “a reasonable observer could not perceive the city as adopting or endorsing the religious message of the display.” The court went further to state that “to exclude the request of a private organization, such as the Fraternal Order of Eagles, to engage in religious speech in a recognized forum on the sole grounds that their speech has religious content could arguably be a violation of their constitutional rights.”

Seizing on this language, the Freethinkers offered their own monument to the city with a request that it be placed near the Ten Commandments monument.  It was to be inscribed:

THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA IS NOT, IN ANY SENSE FOUNDED ON THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION
From the Treaty of Tripoli, Approved Unanimously by the United States Senate, June 7, 1797. Signed by President John Adams
Presented to the City of Fargo by the Red River Freethinkers in recognition of the First Amendment right of every American to believe, or not believe, in any god

The city commission voted to reject the Freethinkers offer, and in order to avoid litigation further decided to donate the Ten Commandments monument to a private entity, who would then move it to a location off of city property.

This caused a stir. many opposed this decision, and a petition garnering more than 5,000 signatures required the commission to either adopt, or submit to a vote of the people, an ordinance that simply stated:

A marker or monument on City of Fargo property for 40 or more years may not be removed from its location on City of Fargo property.

The city adopted the ordinance and left the monument in place.  A month later, the city adopted a policy of not accepting any additional monuments for display on the City Plaza.  The Freethinkers sued again, claiming that the petition, and the city’s reaction to it, had made the monument impermissible under the Establishment Clause.  After jurisdictional issues were addressed, the district court granted summary judgment for the city.  The Freethinkers appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals applied the standard announced by the US Supreme Court (USSC) for evaluating “passive monuments.”  In that USSC case, a Ten Commandments monument stood for over 40 years on the Texas Capitol grounds alongside other (“17 monuments and 21 historical markers”) secular symbols.  The USSC found that the monuments represented the several strands in the State’s political and legal history,” and that “the monument had a dual significance, partaking of both religion and government.” The 8th Circuit found the Fargo monument to be identical to the Texas situation in every legally relevant way.  The Freethinkers argued that the Christian overtones to the petition movement changed public perception of the monument to one with a single religious message; however the Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that petitioners expressed both religious and secular reasons to retain the monument, and that the city commission cited the costs of a legal challenge and the importance of “embracing and tolerating all people” as the basis for its decision.  By adopting the petition, the city did not “necessarily endorse the specific meaning that any particular petitioner sees in the document.”  The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court and dismissed the Freethinker’s petition.

Judge Bye dissented.  After reciting other details of the history of the monument (including the then-mayor’s statement at the 1961 dedication ceremony that the monument “would be a constant reminder to one and all that Fargo shall go forward only as it respects and lives according to the principles of the Ten Commandments”), Justice Bye noted several distinctions between the Fargo monument and the Texas monument, including: (a) unlike the Texas monument, no other monuments share the Civic Plaza in Fargo, (b) the city now has adopted a policy that no other monuments may stand in Civic Plaza, (c) Civic Plaza is flanked on three sides by public buildings, and sidewalks from the entrances to those buildings directly intersect at the monument.  Judge Bye concludes from these facts that the city has rendered the Ten Commandments monument an “active monument” subject to a more stringent test, and that summary judgment in favor of the city was not appropriate.

Church did not have standing to appeal rejection of city’s approval of cross display

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Chris Cabral and Nancy Tarsitano v. City of Evansville, Indiana
(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, June 25, 2014)

In April of 2013 the West Side Christian Church in Evansville, Indiana submitted an application to the City’s Engineer’s Office seeking permission to erect thirty-one six-foot plastic crosses on a 1.5-mile-long public riverfront for two weeks in August of 2013. The city denied the permit originally because the display was intended to be decorated with phrases like “Jesus saves,” which was against the City municipal code regarding “First Amendment signs.” When the permit was resubmitted without the religious phrases, the Board of Public Works approved the display contingent on a disclaimer being placed on either end of the display saying that it was not endorsed by the City of Evansville.

In June 2013 Cabral and Tarsitano (plaintiffs) filed a complaint against Evansville challenging the display as violating the Establishment Clause, and requested a preliminary injunction preventing the installation of the crosses. The church then filed a motion to intervene in July. The district court entered an injunction holding that, “the City’s approval of this display of crosses constitutes an impermissible endorsement of religion that violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” The city did not appeal the decision.  The church, however, filed a timely appeal arguing that the display did not violate the Establishment Clause and that instead the injunction violates the church’s First Amendment rights.

Rather than address the First Amendment issues, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the church lacked standing to pursue its appeal.  There are three requirements that must be met in order for a litigant to have standing: (1) they must have suffered an actual or imminent injury in fact, (2) the injury must be traceable to the challenged action, and (3) it must be likely, not just speculative,  that the injury will be redressed by the court returning a favorable decision. Standing does not exist in this appeal primarily due to the fact that even if the court were to overturn the district court’s decision, it is only speculative as to whether the “injury” suffered by the church would be redressed because the City of Evansville might deny the permit for a number of reasons.  Such speculation as to future events is not enough to support a claim of standing “[S]tanding requires that it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.

In addition, the only party expressly bound by the injunction – the city of Evansville – did not appeal the lower court decision and was not a party to the church’s appeal.  A judgment will not be altered on appeal in favor of a party who did not appeal, even if the interests of the party not appealing are aligned with those of the appellant.

For these reasons, the church’s appeal was dismissed for lack of standing.

 

US Supreme Court OKs opening prayer at government meetings

by Gary Taylor

Town of Greece v. Galloway
(United States Supreme Court, May 5, 2014)

Since 1999, the monthly town board meetings in Greece, New York, have opened with a roll call, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer given by clergy selected from the congregations listed in a local directory. While the prayer program is open to all creeds, nearly all of the local congregations are Christian; thus, nearly all of the participating prayer givers have been too. The Town did not preview or approve the prayer in advance. Susan Galloway and other citizens who attended meetings to speak on local issues objected on the grounds that Christian themes pervaded the prayers to the exclusion of citizens who did not share those beliefs. In response, the town invited a Jewish layman and the chairman of the local Baha’i temple to deliver prayers. A Wiccan priestess who had read press reports about the prayer controversy requested, and was granted an opportunity to give the invocation. Galloway proceeded to file suit, alleging that the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers. They sought to limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God.” The District Court upheld the prayer practice on summary judgment, finding no impermissible preference for Christianity; concluding that the Christian identity of most of the prayer givers reflected the predominantly Christian character of the town’s congregations, not an official policy or practice of discriminating against minority faiths; finding that the First Amendment did not require Greece to invite clergy from congregations beyond its borders to achieve religious diversity; and rejecting the theory that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that some aspects of the prayer program, viewed in their totality by a reasonable observer, conveyed the message that Greece was endorsing Christianity. The Town of Greece appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy began by observing that legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause.  Looking back in history, the Court noted that the First Congress voted to appoint and pay official chaplains shortly after approving language for the First Amendment, and both Houses of Congress have maintained the office virtually uninterrupted since then.  There is also historical precedent for the practice of opening local legislative meetings with prayer as well. Past Supreme Court cases have held that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted “by reference to historical practices and understandings.”  Thus, any application of the Establishment must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change. The Court’s inquiry, then, must be to determine whether the prayer practice in the town of Greece fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.

The Court concluded that Galloway’s insistence on nonsectarian prayer is not consistent with this tradition. The Nation’s history and tradition have shown that prayer in the limited context of opening legislative activity could “coexis[t] with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”  The “content of the prayer is not of concern to judges,” provided “there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian
would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact. It is doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies as a generic or nonsectarian prayer. It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permissible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from the prayer’s place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage when invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds.  The prayers impart the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion, even if they disagree as to religious doctrine. The prayers delivered in the town of Greece may have invoked the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes, by calling for a “spirit of cooperation.” Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a particular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation. So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.

Brief run-down of local government cases before the US Supreme Court this fall

Several cases involving local government law are being heard by the US Supreme Court this fall.  The three that are most significant to BLUZ readers are:

Town of Greece v. Galloway

Argument scheduled for November 6, 2013

The Town of Greece, New York, followed the fairly common policy of allowing a person of any or no denomination to conduct an opening prayer at its Town Board meetings.  The Town did not preview or approve the prayer in advance; however, the Federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals declared the Town’s practice a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.  The Court’s holding could affect the longstanding prayer practices of many local governments.

Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action v. Township of Mount Holly

Argument scheduled for December 4, 2013

The question presented by this case is whether a policy or action (here, a plan to redevelop a low-income minority neighborhood in New Jersey) that disproportionately impacts a protected class of citizens without intentionally discriminating on the basis of race or other factors can give rise to a Fair Housing Act (FHA) claim.  It has long been understood in at least nine federal circuit courts that such claims will stand.  A ruling to the contrary would significantly restrict the types of claims brought under the FHA.

McCullen v. Coakley

Not currently scheduled for oral arguments

The issue is the constitutionality of Massachusetts’s selective exclusion law, which makes it a crime for speakers other than clinic “employees or agents . . . acting within the scope of their employment” to “enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk” within thirty-five feet of an entrance, exit, or driveway of “a reproductive health care facility” – under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, on its face and as applied to petitioners. If the Court decides the issue on broad constitutional grounds, the constitutionality of similar buffers for clinics, funerals, political gatherings, and other events could be called into question or even overturned.

Supreme Court agrees to hear case on prayer at government meetings

by Gary Taylor

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Greece, NY v. Galloway, which focuses on the first ten words of the First Amendment, commonly referred to as the Establishment Clause.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the Establishment Clause was violated when the Greece Town Board repeatedly used Christian clergy to conduct prayers at the start of its public meetings. The decision created split with other appeals courts that have upheld prayer at public meetings.  This split among the appeals courts led to the Supreme Court taking the case.  The Court will hear the case in its next term, which begins in October. Its decision should come in the spring of 2014, and could have broad implications for public schools and public events.

Analysis from Scotusblog is here.

Warren (MI) holiday display does not violate First/Fourteenth Amendments

by Kaitlin Heinen

Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. City of Warren, Michigan
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 25, 2013)

For the past several years between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the City of Warren, Michigan has put up a holiday display in its civic center, which includes both secular and religious symbols, such as a lighted tree, reindeer, wreaths, snowmen, a mailbox for Santa, a “Winter Welcome” sign, and a nativity scene. In 2010, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and one of its members, Douglas Marshall, wrote letters asking Mayor James Fouts to remove the nativity scene, which the City refused.  So in 2011, the Foundation instead asked the City to add the Foundation’s sign with the following words: “At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, [n]o heaven or hell. There is only our natural world, [r]eligion is but [m]yth and superstition [t]hat hardens hearts [a]nd enslaves minds…State/Church KEEP THEM SEPARATE.” The City refused again via a letter from Mayor Fouts, so the Foundation filed a lawsuit based on the freedom-from-establishment and free-speech guarantees of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court rejected these claims, so the Foundation appealed to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court.

In the letter, Mayor Fouts wrote:

When I allowed a display in city hall celebrating Ramadan, the Moslem holy season, I received many calls objecting but I would never have allowed a sign next to the Ramadan display mocking or ridiculing the Moslem religion. In my opinion, Freedom of Religion does not mean “Freedom Against or From Religion.” […] Your non-religion is not a recognized religion. Please don’t hide behind the cloak of non-religion as an excuse to abuse other recognized religions. You can’t make a negative into a positive. Clearly, your proposed display in effect would create considerable ill will among many people of all recognized faiths. During this holiday season, why don’t we try to accomplish the old adage of ‘Good will toward all’?”

To address this, the court turned to the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which prohibits government from favoring one religion over another or from favoring religion over irreligion. Two safe harbors have been identified in the past: “(1) a government may provide benefits to faith-based entities if the benefits are available to secular and religious entities alike; and (2) a government may invoke the divine through words and symbols if they have religious and historical meanings or faith-based and solemnizing effects, and in the process offer at most incidental benefits to any one faith or to faith in general.” A similar suit to this one from Pawtucket, Rhode Island (Lynch) had been brought before the courts previously, which held that “in the context of all components of the display…the display was ‘no more an advancement or endorsement of religion’ than the recognition of Christmas as a national holiday.” Five years later, County of Allegheny upheld a holiday display in front of a city hall that included a Christmas tree, a menorah, and a “salute to liberty” sign, but invalidated a nativity scene displayed by itself in the county courthouse. So this court concluded that “if the multi-purpose, multi-symbol Pawtucket and Allegheny County displays did not offend the Establishment Clause, then neither does the Warren display.”

Even so, the Foundation claimed that Warren’s rejection of its sign betrayed the City’s lack of religious neutrality. But the court reasoned that only one of the objects in the holiday display was religious. Some of the other objects were pagan symbols (i.e. the tree); some were connected to the winter season; and some embodied the holidays’ commercialism. So none of the secular symbols had roots in one faith or in faith in general. The variety of symbols in the Warren display reflected not just the demands of the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause but also the demands of democracy in an increasingly pluralistic country.” This is “why some cities no longer have such displays, [and] why others have made a point of featuring symbols connected to other faiths.” After all, Warren did feature a Ramadan sign one year. “The key lesson of Lynch and Allegheny County is that a city does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause by including a [nativity scene] in a holiday display that contains secular and religious symbols.”

The Foundation also argued that the Mayor’s letter showed that the City’s purpose in putting up a holiday display was to advance religion. The Foundation focused their argument on the Mayor’s objection that the sign would “counter the religious tone of the Nativity Scene.” However, “[j]ust as a court may not isolate a creche in deciding whether a holiday display amounts to an impermissible establishment of religion…it also may not isolate two sentences in a letter to show what the City meant by a particular action.” The point of the letter was to illustrate that the sign would be offensive to religious and nonreligious alike. The Religion Clauses protect both the religious and nonreligious, and the Supreme Court has long permitted exhibits like the Warren holiday display. The Foundation pointed out as well that Warren located its display in the City’s principal government building, “[b]ut that does not doom the display.” The permitted Allegheny County display appeared on public property and was more faith-centered than this one.
The Foundation separately argued that the City violated its free-speech rights by its refusal to add the sign to the display. The First Amendment prohibits governments from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech” of individuals. The court held that this “guarantee prevents governments from restricting the speech of individuals; it does not empower individuals to abridge the speech of government.” Warren’s holiday display is government speech. “The City erected, maintained, took down and stored the display each year and covered the costs in doing so. The City reserved final approval of all components of the display to itself.” The City held full authority over what to include. “And it could choose to deny a message disparaging any one religion or religion in general.” Governments must still comply with the Establishment Clause, which is why Warren could not put up a holiday display that contained only a nativity scene.

Neither does the Warren display violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits States and cities from denying individuals equal protection of the law. “To the extent the Foundation means to claim that the City’s government speech commemorating the holiday disparately treats its preferred message, the answer is: welcome to the crowd. Not everyone, we suspect, is happy with the City’s holiday display from one year to the next. And the Foundation, like everyone else, is free to urge the City to add or remove symbols from the display each year or to try to elect new officials to run the City.” After rejecting the above First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims raised by the Foundation, the district court’s ruling was affirmed by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court.

The Mitchell County steel wheels case

by Gary Taylor

Mitchell County, Iowa v. Zimmerman
(Iowa Supreme Court, February 3, 2012)

Members of the Old Order Groffdale Conference Mennonite Church are forbidden from driving tractors unless their wheels are equipped with steel cleats. According to the defendant Zimmerman, the biblical passage from which the rule derives is Romans 12:2, which reads,

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

The Order’s members have been using steel wheels for at least forty years, the church having determined that steel wheels would contribute to the maintenance of small-scale farming and help ensure that tractors are not used for pleasure purposes and thereby displace the horse and buggy.  The defendant testified, “The religious practice, it has to be steel hitting the surface, [be] it soil, [be] it highway, [be] it concrete.” Over the years, to minimize possible road damage, the steel cleats and lugs have been made wider and have been mounted on rubber belts to provide cushioning.

For many years Mitchell County (Iowa) officials did not object to the Mennonites’ use of steel wheels; however, in 2009 the county spent $9 million on a road resurfacing project.  The county “white-topped” (covered existing roads with concrete) several roads.  County officials testified that they found that the steel wheels caused pavement cracking, and took the paint off of the white-topped road.  As a result, in September 2009, the county adopted the following ordinance; its stated purpose being “to protect Mitchell County hard surfaced roads”:

No person shall drive over the hard surfaced roadways, including but not limited to cement, concrete and blacktop roads, of Mitchell County, or any political subdivision thereof, a tractor or vehicle equipped with steel or metal tires equipped with cleats, ice picks, studs, spikes, chains or other projections of any kind or steel or metal wheels equipped with cleats, ice picks, studs, spikes, chains, or other projections of any kind.

Violators are subject to a maximum fine of $500 or 30 days in jail, or both.  A civil penalty may also be imposed equal to the amount necessary to repair the damage to the road.  Iowa Code 321.442 contains similar prohibitions on the use of tires with  “block, stud, flange, cleat, or spike or any other protuberances of any material other than rubber,” but the penalty is only a $10 fine. County officials testified that the county ordinance was intended to have identical prohibitions to the state law, but with stiffer sanctions for violations.  Zimmerman was charged with violating the county ordinance.  The district court found that the ordinance “substantially burdened religious practice” but also determined that the ordinance was neutral (treating secular and religious conduct the same), generally applicable, and not motivated by religious animosity, citing the US Supreme Court case Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. The district court upheld the citation.  Zimmerman appealed.

The question before the Iowa Supreme Court was whether the ordinance violates the religious rights of the church members under either the United States or the Iowa Constitution.  In a unanimous verdict, the Court determined that, indeed, the Mitchell County ordinance violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (it did not reach the question whether the defendant’s rights under the Iowa Constitution had been violated). The Court found that the ordinance was neutral on its face and in its operation, but that the ordinance was not of general applicability because it contained exemptions that are inconsistent with its stated purpose of protecting Mitchell County’s roads. The county ordinance carried over the exceptions to the prohibition found in Iowa Code 321.442, those being

1. Farm machinery with tires having protuberances which will not injure the highway.
2. Tire chains of reasonable proportions upon any vehicle when required for safety because of snow, ice, or other conditions tending to cause a vehicle to skid.
3. Pneumatic tires with inserted ice grips or tire studs projecting not more than one-sixteenth inch beyond the tread of the traction surface of the tire upon any vehicle from November 1 of each year to April 1 of the following year, except that a school bus and fire department emergency apparatus may use such tires at any time.

The Court concluded that the exceptions that allow school buses and fire department vehicles to have studded tires year-round undermine the purpose of protecting the roads; indeed, this still would be the case  if the ordinance was specifically stated to have the dual purposes of protecting roads and providing for the safety of school buses and emergency vehicles.  Moreover, the County “declined in September 2009 to regulate various other sources of road damage besides steel wheels. Rather, it chose to prohibit only a particular source of harm to the roads that had a religious origin.”

An ordinance can fail the general applicability test and still pass “strict scrutiny,” if the ordinance “serves a compelling state interest and is the least restrictive means of attaining that interest.” The Court, however, also found that the ordinance could not survive strict scrutiny.  Given the lack of evidence of the degree to which the steel lugs harm the County’s roads, in light of the undisputed fact that other events cause road damage, and the undisputed fact that the County had tolerated steel lugs for many years before 2009, “it is difficult to see that an outright ban on those lugs is necessary to serve a compelling state interest.” The Court pointed to neighboring Howard County, where an agreement was reached with the Mennonite community to accept a financial deposit to cover possible road damage in lieu of banning steel wheels, as an example of a less restrictive means of accomplishing the goal of road preservation available to Mitchell County.

The Court reversed the lower court’s affirmation of the citation against Zimmerman, and remanded for entry of an order of dismissal.

Latin cross on federal land of war memorial an impermissible endorsement of religious belief

by Melanie Thwing

Jewish War Veterans v. United States of America
(9th Circuit Court of Appeals, January 4, 2011)

In La Jolla, California at the top of Mount Soledad stands a 43 ft cross and veterans’ memorial that was constructed by the Mount Soledad Memorial Association (the Association). This area overlooks the main highways in and out of the San Diego area, and the cross can be seen prominantly. La Jolla itself has a long history of anti-Semitism, to the point that Jews were not allowed to move in because of formal and informal housing restrictions until the 1960’s. The site has played home to a cross since 1913, with the one seen today being constructed in 1954. Although originally used for church services mixed with a few memorial services, in the 1990’s a more intensive war memorial complete with concentric walls and black stone plaques were added.

In 1989 two veterans sued the city wanting the cross to be moved from city land. This suit was ultimately successful, the court finding the cross violated the No Preference Clause found in the California Constitution. In response to this, the city ultimately decided to authorize selling a 22 sq. ft. parcel of land to the Association. By 1994 the land had been sold, but the sale was invalidated because the city failed to consider other buyers.

The city restarted the process, and the land ultimately went to the Association in 1998. Again, this sale was invalidated by the court because it gave a direct benefit to bidders who wanted to preserve the cross. An agreement was then reached to move the cross to a neighboring church. By 2006, after much debate about the land and who to sell to, the federal government seized the land by eminent domain, which both the House and Senate approved.

The Act that authorized the transfer reads, “ in order to preserve a historically significant war memorial, designated the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, California as a national memorial honoring veterans of the United States Armed Forces… [t]he United States has a long history and tradition of memorializing members of the Armed Forces who die in battle with a cross or other religious emblem of their faith, and a memorial cross is fully integrated as the centerpiece of the multi-faceted Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial that is replete with secular symbols.”

Soon after this, the Jewish War Veterans and a couple of veterans individually filed suit in district court stating that the cross violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The district court applied the Lemon and Van Orden tests. Lemon requires a detrmination whether a governmental action advances religion, or causes excessive entanglement with religion. Van Orden simply establishes an exception to Lemon that would allow some religious displays that have a historical or secular message in a non-religious context. An example cited is a large display containing a Christmas tree as well as a menorah, which was found to be uniting.   Summary judgment for the government was granted in district court, the court stating that the memorial did not violate the Establishment Clause.  The Jewish War Veterans’ soon appealed to the 9TH Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals held that the government’s acquisition of the Memorial was secular because it sought to preserve a historically significant war memorial. They also found that the Act in general did not link to the cross, nor does it require the continued presence of the cross. It only requires that the site is maintained as a memorial.

The second question is whether it is reasonable to believe the government action can be construed as endorsing or disapproving of a religion(s). The court considers the meaning of the Latin cross, the history, secular elements, and usage. After testimony from a Jewish War Veterans’ expert, the 9th Circuit found that the Latin cross is not a broadly understood symbol of military service, but rather holds a Christian meaning. The universal symbol for wars has been the poppy, and even in cemeteries such as Arlington flat upright stones mark graves. Further, almost no memorials across the country feature the cross.

Also, in the historical context, it is necessary to determine whether the memorial endorses Christianity. The site was originally chosen because it was a “fitting place to erect an emblem of faith,” and there was no indication that the cross was meant as a memorial until 1989, when litigation over the land began. Further, the cross itself was dedicated during an Easter ceremony, but only two Veterans day celebrations before 1989 had occurred. A reasonable observer would hold that it is a religious and holy object, and the recent use as a war memorial cannot overcome this.

Finally, although there are engraved plaques for fallen soldiers, these fall in the shadow of the cross. The court finds that the way the cross overshadows the other aspects of the memorial makes it religious in purpose. Also, the cross (and only the cross) can be seen from miles around, and in this context does not present as a memorial but rather a religious symbol.

The 9th Circuit concluded that the distinctiveness of the cross sends a strong message of endorsements toward the Christian beliefs. After taking everything in to account, the memorial does violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the district court decision is remanded for further proceedings. It is important to note that this remand does not require the cross to be taken down, but rather for the issue to be dealt with by proper remedies.

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