Cross Purpose: Senate Hopes Mt. Soledad Bill Will Preserve Sectarian War Memorial

The U.S. Senate has approved a bill transferring ownership of the Mt. Soledad veterans' memorial from the city of San Diego to the federal government.

The memorial, which has a 29-foot Latin cross as its predominant feature, has been the subject of litigation for nearly two decades. A federal court of appeals has twice ruled that the cross violates the state constitution's church-state separation provisions. It is, the judges held, a "sectarian war memorial carry[ing] an inherently religious message and creat[ing] an appearance of honoring only those service men of that particular religion." The court ordered the cross' removal by Aug. 1, 2006, and imposed a $5,000 fine for each day the city failed to comply.

That's when members of Congress stepped in. Nearly identical bills were proposed by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R- Ala.) to transfer ownership to the federal government. Supporters of the cross display hope the federal courts will interpret the federal constitution to allow the religious symbol.

That seems unlikely. In a letter urging senators to defeat H.R. 5683, Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn noted that federal courts have repeatedly held that Latin crosses – whether erected on state or federal land – send the unconstitutional message that the government endorses Christianity.

Unfortunately, the bill was approved Aug. 1 by unanimous consent, with support from senators with generally excellent records on church-state separation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed her support for the bill, saying "The Mt. Soledad Cross has been a great source of hope and inspiration for decades.... I do not believe it should be torn down." 

For some believers, the cross is indeed a comforting and solemn symbol; but a Latin cross cannot honor all of those who served our country. Americans of many different faiths and none have fought in our wars. For the government to choose one religious symbol to memorialize our veterans sends the message that veterans of that faith are more revered or more worthy of remembrance. Talk about the ultimate insult to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice!

And the cross doesn't have to be torn down. It can be moved to a nearby church that has already agreed to accept it.

The bill is headed to the president, who is expected to sign it into law.