The war memorial proposed for placement at the public-owned Lake Elsinore Diamond Stadium was a fan favorite at City Council meetings, with an overflow crowd hooting their support when the statue of a soldier kneeling before a cross was unanimously approved in November 2012.
City Council members knew that secular humanists in the Southern California community didn’t like the religious symbol and that the city attorney said it was probably unconstitutional. Now they know that a federal judge isn’t fond of it either.
U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled last week (pdf) that the city “violates both the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the Establishment and No Preference Clauses of the California Constitution.” Wilson wrote, “The Court concludes that Lake Elsinore’s veterans’ memorial was designed without a predominantly secular purpose, and that its principal effect is to advance religion.”
The lawsuit was filed in May 2013 by the American Humanist Association after plans for the religious war memorial were unveiled. Judge Wilson issued a preliminary injunction, freezing the project two months later. The 5-foot-tall granite memorial was to sit outside the 6,000-seat home of the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Class A minor league baseball affiliate of the San Diego Padres.
Judge Wilson cited repeated instances of its members discussing how important it was to have a religious theme. The design began as a memorial honoring a single veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Council members bristled in October 2012 when it was first unveiled and some members of the audience objected to the single soldier kneeling before a cross at a grave.
Mayor Pro Tem Hickman is quoted as saying: “I feel sorry for us that we as Christians cannot show the cross because of the First Amendment. Okay. It really is a shame that our society, to me, is leaning that way.” Councilwoman Melissa Melendez, a U.S. Navy veteran and now an Assemblywoman, stated “it is a sad reflection on our society when as a Christian nation, one of the principles upon which we were founded, is something that we are forced to hide.”
After the city attorney advised the council that the single cross in the memorial design was probably an unconstitutional pitch for Christianity on publicly-owned property, in front of a stadium, the council unanimously approved a redesign that added eight smaller crosses and two Stars of David. It also morphed into a World War II memorial.
The inclusion of a Jewish symbol and a WWII shoutout did not placate the judge.
“It was only after members of the community complained about the legality of including the cross that the Design Committee decided to add a row of crosses and Stars of David in order to make the design look like a World War II memorial,” he wrote. “The addition of the rows of crosses and Stars of David also came only one month after members of the City Council had vocalized a commitment to keeping the cross for religious reasons.”
The judge said the city was not honest when it asserted in the case a position articulated by Melendez—“no matter how long and how many different ways you try to make this a religious issue, it is not.” He said that “simply cannot be squared with the Council’s prior statements.”