California memorial cross found unconstitutional

Tue Jan 4, 2011 10:11pm EST
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By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that a San Diego war memorial marked by a four-story-tall Christian cross on public land violates the U.S. constitutional ban on government endorsement of religion.

Capping a legal dispute brewing since the late 1980s, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court decision that threw out a legal challenge to the hilltop cross brought on behalf of Jewish war veterans.

The three-judge panel concluded in its 47-page opinion that the U.S. "district court erred in declaring the memorial to be primarily nonsectarian and granting summary judgment in favor of the government and the memorial's supporters."

A group that filed a brief on behalf of 25 members of Congress supporting the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial, the American Center for Law and Justice, condemned the appeals court ruling as "a judicial slap in the face to our military veterans."

The appeals court, recognizing volatile feelings generated on both sides by the case, wrote that America's war veterans can and should be honored, "but without the imprimatur of state-endorsed religion."

In its 3-0 decision, the court stopped short of ordering removal of the cross and left open the possibility that the memorial could be redesigned to incorporate a cross in a way that would "pass constitutional muster."

But the appellate panel took no position on a remedy, leaving the question of how the memorial might be reconfigured to be decided by the lower-court judge.

David Blair-Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego, said U.S. District Judge Larry Burns might order the parties to confer or engage in mediation to reach a final resolution to the case.   Continued...