Humanists Challenge City’s Religious Memorial

     RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – The American Humanist Association sued the City of Lake Elsinore, claiming its approval of a war memorial with a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross violates separation of church and state.
     The American Humanist Association, its member Diana Hansen, and another Elsinore resident, John Larsen, say they object to the city’s spending of public money on the unconstitutional memorial.
     They sued the city, its Mayor Robert Magee and the four other members of the City Council, in Federal Court.
     Lake Elsinore, pop. 53,000, is known for its Minor League ballpark, whose design is based on Fenway Park, and for a popular hang-gliding spot from the cliffs that tower above the city in the Santa Ana Mountains.
     The plaintiffs claim the City Council knew the proposed $50,000 memorial is unconstitutional, but approved it anyway. City officials made several public statements suggesting inclusion of a cross influenced the decision to approve the project, American Humanist Association claims.
     If completed, the memorial would stand 4 1/2 feet tall and sit on a granite base outside the Elsinore Diamond Stadium, home of the Lake Elsinore Storm, a Class A farm team for the San Diego Padres.
     A picture of the proposed memorial, attached as an exhibit to the complaint, depicts an image of the kneeling soldier on the core of the monument. “Freedom Is Never Free” is written beneath.
     At first, none of the proposed war memorials included religious elements, the humanists say. But at the Oct. 23, 2012, public unveiling, the design included a cross.
     After several Elsinore residents opposed the design, and the city attorney confirmed that the memorial might expose the city to litigation, the council voted 4-0 to remove the cross, according to the complaint.
     But after consulting with 17 residents, the city “voted unanimously to amend the design to add a Star of David without removing the cross and to add numerous additional Christian crosses in the background,” according to the 27-page complaint.
     The City Council met on Nov. 13, 2012 to vote on the new design. Residents spoke on both sides of the issue.
     “Although both AHA [American Humanist Association] and MAAF [Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers] sent letters to the City Council explaining that the cross monument would be unconstitutional and does not represent those soldiers who are not Christian or Jewish, the City Council did not read these letters aloud to the public as they had done with those in support of the cross,” the complaint states.
     The City Council approved the memorial unanimously.
     Mayor Magee told the public that though the “taxpayer would be on the hook for any lawsuits against the city,” Pacific Justice Institute would defend the city, according to the complaint.
     The humanists call the Pacific Justice Institute a Christian special-interest organization.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the memorial is unconstitutional, and an injunction restraining the city from funding or installing it, plus nominal damages and costs.
     “The city has clearly violated the First Amendment by unnecessarily choosing a divisively religious means of honoring our veterans,” plaintiffs’ staff attorney William Burgess, of Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “In addition, the California Constitution prohibits any governmental funding whatsoever for religious purposes, including religious monuments.”
     The Pacific Justice Institute said in a statement that it was “confident that its [Elsinore’s] actions were appropriate and constitutional.”
     The group said it had “previously defeated atheist lawsuits against other American traditions, such as the national motto and prayer at presidential inaugurations, and we look forward to vigorously defending both the city and the brave men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.”
     Mayor Magee did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
     Lake Elsinore is the northernmost of a trio of cities in the Temecula Valley, which is known for its right-wing politics. The other cities are Murrieta and Temecula.
     The American Humanist Association claims to have more than 20,000 members “dedicated to advancing and preserving separation of church and state, the constitutional protections found in the Bill of Rights, and, in particular, the First Amendment.”

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