The Freedom From Religion Foundation sends its warmest congratulations and thanks to Steve Trunk, whose legal challenge of a huge cross on public property masquerading as a war memorial was vindicated today by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court let stand Trunk’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals victory declaring unconstitutional the 43-foot “Mt. Soledad Easter Cross” planted atop San Diego’s Mount Soledad Public Park.
It’s been a long wait for justice. Steve won his legal challenge before the appeals court in January 2011. The lawsuit actually began in 1989, when Philip Paulson, a Vietnam vet and atheist, first sued. Paulson, who became FFRF’s premiere Atheist in Foxhole awardee first won his case in federal court in 1991. But it has taken more than 21 years to enforce that ruling. Steve Trunk, also a Vietnam vet and atheist, joined the case when Paulson was dying, ensuring the continuation of what has to be one of the longest-running Establishment Clause cases in U.S. history.
The earliest record shows a wooden cross in the park in 1913. Gregory Peck, who grew up in the area, recorded in his autobiography that the KKK, a Christian club active in San Diego, even used to burn crosses on Mt. Soldedad to serve as a warning to Jews, blacks and Catholics to stay away from the “restricted” area. As Steve puts it: “The cross is not necessarily just a symbol of Christian love and salvation. To some, it’s a symbol of hatred and racism.”
The current “Mount Soledad Easter Cross” was dedicated in 1954 officially as “a reminder of God’s promise to man of everlasting life and of those persons who gave their lives for our freedom.” It stood alone for most of its history, and was used as site for Easter sunrise services. After Paulson and a second Vietnam vet sued in 1989, the government, in cahoots with the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, gradually began adding a belated war memorial around the gargantuan cross in a ruse to “save the cross.” That war memorial, naturally, shunned nonChristian veterans. As Steve testified, he was “a veteran who served his country during the Vietnam conflict [but] I am not a Christian and the memorial sends a very clear message to me that the government is honoring Christian war veterans and not nonChristians.”
A seemingly endless series of legal maneuvers in state and federal courts to circumvent the federal ruling took place. Due to the federal land transfer approved by a complicit Congress, in 2006, the site is now managed by the Navy, who will be overseeing (soon, we hope!) removal of the enormous cross from government property.
As the Ninth Circuit ruled:
“By claiming to honor all service members with a symbol that is intrinsically connected to a particular religion, the government sends an implicit message ‘to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’ ”
The law and court precedent remains the same — squarely against crosses on public property.
Here’s a salute to Steve Trunk — a longtime FFRF Board Member and Life Member — who was named FFRF’s third Atheist in Foxhole awardee.
Reason — and the Constitution — has finally prevailed. Read the appeals decision.