In April of last year, the City Council of Lake Elsinore, California talked about how nice it would be to honor local veterans with a monument. $50,000 was budgeted for the project and all the designs they considered in the following weeks seemed fairly typical for such a monument. They included the American flag, a bald eagle, the city’s crest, military branches’ emblems, etc.
In July, Mayor Pro Tem (i.e. vice mayor) Daryl Hickman suggested the monument be placed, not in the courtyard of City Hall, but near the entrance of Diamond Stadium, a city-owned minor league baseball stadium. The City Council agreed to the change and moved forward with a plan to build a redesigned monument… but the design that was eventually put forward in October featured a soldier kneeling in front of a Christian cross:
There were several objections from people who attended the October meeting, but Hickson saw no problem (PDF) with the proposal:
“I feel sorry for us that we as Christians cannot show the cross because [of] the First Amendment… it really is a shame that our society is leaning that way.”
Councilmember Melissa Melendez agreed:
She stated that it was a “sad reflection on our society when as a Christian nation, one of the principles upon which we were founded is something we are forced to hide in society specifically with reverence to our veterans, the very people who have fought to protect our religious freedom. And now we have organizations who choose to take that opportunity of reverence away from us.”
Melendez admitted that the monument could be subject to a lawsuit, but added that the objectors in the audience should’ve spoken up months earlier… which they wouldn’t have since all the designs at that time were secular in nature.
The city’s lawyer, trying to talk some sense into his clients, was adamant that there was no way this would be legal:
“It’s a publicly funded [monument]… it goes back to the separation of church and state… you have public funds going into a public monument in a public location, and it demonstrates, arguably demonstrates, a religious preference.”
A smarter City Council would’ve asked for a redesign of the monument with all the religious references removed.
Too bad the Lake Elsinore City Council is not a smart group of people.
They requested a redesign in November but kept the cross in the image. In fact, they requested more crosses be added to the design. Then, just to prove they weren’t only promoting Christianity, they added a single Star of David to the design, thinking it’d make everybody happy.
That version of the design was approved unanimously, so this is what they plan to build in front of the stadium:
During this entire process, local residents, the American Humanist Association (AHA), and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) all warned councilmembers that they were violating the Constitution, but their warnings were ignored.
In fact, the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center even pointed out to the City Council last November why the crosses (even with a Star of David) weren’t permissible:
This letter should not in any way be misread to imply that those who support the separation of church and state in general, or AHA in particular, seek in any way to diminish the sacrifice of the soldiers intended to be honored by the Memorial. It does them, and us all, a great disservice, however, to conflate patriotism and religion. A Christian cross (or a cross plus a Star of David) does not represent all of the war dead; it is not the marker chosen by Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists, nor by atheists, agnostics, humanists or other nonbelievers. They are inherently sectarian symbols. The state cannot choose such religious symbols to stand for all of the fallen. To do so is to denigrate the service of those who have not chosen those religions, relegating them to second class citizen status.
But, like I said, the warnings were ignored and the City plans to move forward with the Monument to Christian Soldiers.
So the AHA was left with no choice but to sue the city of Lake Elsinore to prevent it from building the monument:
“The city has clearly violated the First Amendment by unnecessarily choosing a divisively religious means of honoring our veterans,” said William Burgess, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “In addition, the California constitution prohibits any governmental funding whatsoever for religious purposes, including religious monuments.”
The City Council members are perfectly aware they’re breaking the law — they were told why many times over — yet, they’re still defending this Christian monument. They don’t give a damn that there are Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or any non-Christian or non-Jewish soldiers.
They don’t care that they’re breaking the law because a Christian group (the Pacific Justice Institute) has offered to defend them for free — though, if the city loses the case, it’s the local taxpayers who will be on the hook for any potential damages and attorneys’ fees for the AHA’s side.