In 1952, the City of San Diego authorized the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association to build a 43-foot-tall Latin cross on top of Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, California. The cross was dedicated in a Christian religious service on Easter Sunday in 1954, and it was used as a site for Easter services for the next forty years.
In 1989, two Vietnam veterans from San Diego sued the City in federal court, challenging the display of the cross on City property. Two years later, the trial court ruled that the display of the cross violated the California Constitution, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld that decision. In response, the City twice attempted to sell the patch of land under the cross. But the trial court and the Ninth Circuit concluded that those attempts violated the California Constitution.
To avoid the requirements of the California Constitution, Congress enacted federal legislation transferring the Mt. Soledad property to the United States government and preserving the cross as a national veterans’ memorial. In August 2006, one of the original plaintiffs and another veterans organization filed suit against the federal government under the federal Establishment Clause. The trial court, however, dismissed the case, concluding that the cross served as a secular symbol of military service, sacrifice, and death.
The plaintiffs appealed, and in January 2009 Americans United filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit. We argued, in support of the plaintiffs, that the Latin cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and that it offends Christians and non-Christians alike to pretend that the cross is a purely secular symbol.
In January 2011, the Ninth Circuit overturned the trial court's decision and concluded that the cross conveyed a message of government endorsement of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the defendants' petition for review, and the case is now back in the trial court for a new decision in accordance with the Ninth Circuit's ruling.
Read our reaction to the Supreme Court's decision to deny review of the case.