A towering Latin cross that sits atop Mt. Soledad in California is not a generic symbol of military sacrifice, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
In a legal brief filed on behalf of military historians in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United says that the Latin cross is a powerful symbol of the Christian religion that has rarely if ever been used by the military to mark the permanent graves of non-Christian soldiers. Yet the U.S. government insists that this clear symbol of a specific faith has somehow become separate from its religious meaning and can now be used as a generic memorial.
“A Latin cross is the most basic, most recognizable symbol of the Christian religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That the federal government would even attempt to argue that there is a secular meaning for the very object upon which Christians believe Jesus Christ died is both offensive and absurd.”
Litigation over the Mt. Soledad cross has been under way for more than 20 years. Several federal courts have ruled against its display on government property. In an effort to save the 43-foot-tall cross, the federal government acquired the land underneath the structure in 2006. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruled in 2011 that the religious display violates separation of church and state, and in 2013 a federal trial judge ordered that the cross be removed from government land. Yet the fate of the cross remains uncertain.
The brief for Trunk v. City of San Diego also explains that the military purposely left Latin crosses off national military monuments and memorials because it is well aware of that object’s religious symbolism.
“It is no accident that the prominent national monuments and memorials that honor our war dead avoid the Latin cross in favor of evocative secular images to which all can relate. The military has consistently recognized that the Latin cross—the symbol of Jesus’s crucifixion—is a distinctly Christian symbol that honors only individual Christian soldiers. The Mt. Soledad memorial, likewise, has the effect of honoring Christian soldiers and Christian soldiers alone.”
The brief was filed on behalf of five professors who are experts in military history. It was prepared by Robert M. Loeb and Jeremy R. Peterman from the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, along with Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.