Lake Elsinore Sued Over Cross on Planned City Monument

The city attorney had warned the City Council that courts generally find crosses on public property to be unconstitutional

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    The Press-Enterprise
    An artist rendering shows a veterans memorial that Lake Elsinore plans to erect, prompting a lawsuit from a group that says the monument violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Source: The Press Enterprise.

    A group that promotes a secular way of life is suing the city of Lake Elsinore for funding a monument depicting a soldier kneeling at a cross.

    The American Humanist Association served Lake Elsinore with the complaint on Monday, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported.

    The lawsuit contends that the Riverside County community violated the constitutional separation of church and state by agreeing last fall to pay for a $50,000 monument that includes a soldier kneeling before a cross-topped gravesite under a U.S. flag.

    The 6-foot tall, black granite monument to veterans would stand in front of the city's Diamond Stadium. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent its construction, the newspaper reported.

    The monument was meant to depict a World War II soldier mourning a comrade and wasn't intended to have a religious message, said City Councilman Brian Tisdale, who chose the design along with a committee of local historians and veterans.

    "It was simply meant to be a historical representation,'' Tisdale said Monday.

    However, the government is making a statement when it puts a religious symbol on public property, said William Burgess, director of the humanist organization's legal center.

    "The harm in this is not a church or other private organization, it's the city government,'' he said Monday. "What it says to everyone who's not part of that religion is, 'You're not welcome here.'''

    Several local artists complained to the City Council last year that the monument could invite lawsuits and City Attorney David Mann told the council that courts generally find crosses on public property to be unconstitutional, the Press-Enterprise said.

    There have been several long-running legal feuds in California over crosses on public land.

    A community group seeking to preserve a towering cross atop Riverside's city-owned Mount Rubidoux bought land around the landmark earlier this year. The city voted to sell the land around the cross to avoid a lawsuit on its constitutionality.

    Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved in a fight over whether a 29-foot war memorial cross can remain on public land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. An appeals court has ruled that the Mount Soledad cross, in place since the 1950s, is unconstitutional. More legal wrangling is expected.

    The Supreme Court did rule in another case involving a war memorial cross. After a decade-long legal battle, the high court refused in 2010 to ban the cross from Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve.

    A lower court later approved a settlement allowing the land under the cross to be sold to a veterans group. The disputed cross was stolen but a steel replacement was dedicated on the site last year.

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