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Judge: Lake Elsinore's proposed memorial unconstitutional because it sends 'religious message'

RIVERSIDE - The city of Lake Elsinore's proposed granite monument saluting veterans of foreign wars who have made the ultimate sacrifice is an unconstitutional display by the municipality because it sends an ''unmistakably religious message'' that city leaders overtly support, according to a federal judge's written ruling published today.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson, based at the federal courthouse in downtown Riverside, granted a preliminary injunction sought by two Lake Elsinore residents represented by the American Humanist Association, which challenged the proposed $50,000 monument that the city intended to place at the entrance to Diamond Stadium.

Wilson explained his reasoning for granting the injunction Tuesday in a 49-page ruling that concluded the ''balance of equities tip sharply'' in favor of the plaintiffs, who have a high probability of prevailing in their lawsuit against the city.

A trial on whether to grant a permanent injunction, effectively killing the monument plan, is set for September.

''The legislative history and the comments of the city's elected leaders leading up to approval of the (monument) would lead a reasonable observer to believe that the monument endorses Christianity and Judaism,'' Wilson wrote.

The judge fell back on several Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' precedents to bolster his view that the monument's potential historical tribute was less significant than its religious meaning.

''The monument is slated to stand alone in front of the stadium,'' Wilson wrote. ''There are no surrounding war memorials or other displays that might communicate to the reasonable viewer that the city sought to reflect secular and historical messages, rather than religious ones.

''The fact that the Latin crosses and Star of David (depicted on the 4.5- foot-high memorial) do not dominate ... cannot take away from the unmistakably religious message they send to any objective viewer. The Latin crosses and the Star of David are immediately noticeable to even the most casual passerby; they appear on the front of the monument ... and are illuminated in white.''

Wilson conceded that the U.S. Supreme Court had made allowances for publicly financed religious displays in ''borderline'' instances of religious endorsement, but the cases were usually settled by the obvious presence of sectarian symbols that provided some balance.

The judge referred to the three large crosses on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, as well as two large crosses at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Attorneys with the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, which defends ''religious freedom and other civil liberties'' and is representing Lake Elsinore, argued that the city's proposed monument was modeled after the American War Cemetery near Omaha Beach, one of the landing points of the Normandy invasion in France by allied forces during World War II.

The monument design depicts a soldier kneeling before rows upon rows of crosses, like those erected over many of the graves of servicemen killed at Omaha Beach.

Wilson, however, found the argument unpersuasive in the face of statements by city leaders and a representative of the local historical society -- all of whom avowed their faith during public meetings.

''There is no indication that any council member so much as suggested that the Latin crosses and Star of David were meant to allude to World War II veterans,'' the judge wrote. ''At least three council members made specific statements that they wanted to keep the Latin cross as part of the monument because of its religious symbolism.''

The judge, citing standards set by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, said he had to drill down to the real ''motivation'' of city leaders in deciding whether an injunction was warranted in the case.

Wilson's ruling was based solely on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that Congress ''shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.''

The plaintiffs asked the judge to consider ruling on alleged violations of similar provisions within the California Constitution, but he declined.

Wilson's interpretation of the Establishment Clause dovetails with more than six decades of case law that began with Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black's majority opinion in Everson v. Board of Education that a ''wall'' separated church and state.

Many scholars and jurists contend the wall is a myth, and that the founders never intended to relegate God from the public square, but rather prevent the government from financially supporting one religion to the detriment of another.


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