Cross Fire: The Latest Effort To Save Christian ‘War Memorial’ Should Fail

Some people insist that the cross – the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith – isn’t really religious. It’s just a secular marker for war dead.

Let’s say you had a relative who fought and died in World War II and who was an atheist (or a Jew or a Hindu). Let’s say the government told you it was going to honor your relative’s sacrifice to our nation with a 43-foot cross atop a mountain in San Diego.

Is this acceptable to you – a cross honoring your deceased, non-Christian veteran?

It’s not to a lot of people. Yet that’s exactly what’s going on at Mt. Soledad in California.

The Mt. Soledad cross was first erected in 1913. Back then, no one tried to pretend that it was a war memorial. It was displayed for clear religious purposes.

Bad weather knocked down two crosses, so in 1954 a concrete replacement (reinforced with steel) was erected. Again, no one tried to claim that the symbol was a war memorial. Backers of the cross said they wanted “to create a park worthy of this magnificent view, and worthy to be a setting for the symbol of Christianity.”

Only after the symbol became the subject of litigation in 1989 did people suddenly start insisting that the cross was intended to be a war memorial.

Since then, this case has had more twists than a spy novel. Cross defenders have desperately tried to latch on to any argument they can, even insisting that the cross – the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith – isn’t really religious. It’s just a secular marker for war dead.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument in a January ruling. Writing for the court, Judge M. Margaret McKeown observed, “The use of such a distinctively Christian symbol to honor all veterans sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion. It suggests that the government is so connected to a particular religion that it treats that religion’s symbolism as its own, as universal.”

Rather than accept the logic of the ruling in Trunk and Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America v. City of San Diego, politicians keep interfering. U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has over the years introduced several pieces of legislation designed to keep the cross up. Courts keep striking them down, but Hunter won’t stop.

Hunter’s most recent gambit is a bill that he says will allow the cross to stay by declaring that religious symbols are suitable elements for a war memorial.

The bill faced a markup today in the House Committee on Natural Resources and sailed through. Hunter’s proposed legislation, known as the War Memorial Protection Act (H.R. 290), purports to legalize the inclusion of sectarian symbols on war memorials

This is a waste of Congress’ time. Courts, not Congress, will decide the fate of this religious symbol. Hunter’s stunt may please the cultural warriors of the Religious Right, but it doesn’t actually achieve anything.

Furthermore, the Hunter measure is most likely unconstitutional because it would amount to government promotion of religion.

But the real problem with the bill is that it’s insensitive and offensive. By asserting that the majority’s religious symbol is a fitting tribute to all war dead, Hunter’s bill overlooks and even denigrates the sacrifices made by a lot of brave men and women.

This is not rocket science. Over the years, millions of Americans have laid down their lives to protect our country and its way of life. Some were Christians, some were Jews, some were atheists and so on. A cross does not and cannot represent them all.

It’s time for Congress to stop intervening in this matter. It’s also time for the Mt. Soledad memorial to be redesigned and made secular. The site should be a place where all feel welcome and where the memory of fallen warriors is in honored in an appropriate fashion – not a divisive one.

As for the cross itself, there is no reason why it has to be dismantled or destroyed. I’m sure it can find a new home. My guess is that there are plenty of churches in the area that will be happy to take it.