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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Finds War Memorial Unconstitutional

(CN) - A planned war memorial outside Lake Elsinore's Minor League baseball stadium should not be built because the "principal effect" of its design "is to advance religion," a federal judge ruled.

The Lake Elsinore Storm is the San Diego Padres Class A team. Its home field in Riverside County, modeled after Boston's Fenway Park, is considered the best Minor League park in the nation.

Last year the American Humanist Association sued Lake Elsinore, its Mayor Robert Magee and the City Council, claiming a war memorial planned for the ballpark entrance, showing a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross, would violate the separation of church and state.

The 4½-foot tall memorial on a granite base would sit outside the Elsinore Diamond ballfield.

"Freedom Is Never Free" would be on a plaque beneath the kneeling soldier.

After several people opposed the design at an Oct. 23, 2012 council meeting, then-Mayor Pro Tem Hickman and other council members hit back.

"I feel sorry for us that we as Christians cannot show the cross because of the First

Amendment," Hickman lamented. "It really is a shame that our society, to me, is leaning that way."

Councilman Daryl Hickman said: "I'm not going to sit here and wait for people to denigrate my beliefs, OK? ... Let them just present their designs. We don't have to change it."

Councilwoman Melissa Melendez added: "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."

Such statements made it clear why the $50,000 memorial was approved, even though city lawyers warned the city would be sued, the association claimed.

U.S. District Judge Wilson agreed, finding the design violates the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause and California's Establishment and No Preference Clauses.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Wilson found the memorial was "designed without a predominantly secular purpose, and that its principal effect is to advance religion."

The court used the three-prong Lemon test, which analyzes a government action concerning religion under the Establishment Clause.

Officials' public comments "expressed a predominantly religious interest in keeping the cross on the memorial," Judge Wilson wrote.

The "public comments show that for a majority of the five-person Lake Elsinore City Council, the purpose for including the cross on the memorial was to symbolize their religion and the country's status as a Christian nation. Such comments reflect an abandonment of government neutrality in adopting the cross design," Wilson wrote.

Wilson was unmoved by the city's contention that a design that included a Star of David and rows of white crosses was merely a historical depiction of World War II. That is just a "litigating position," the judge said.

Later statements that "the revised memorial display had 'nothing to do with religion' and 'no matter how long and how many different ways you try to make this a religious issue, it is not,' ... simply cannot be squared with the council's prior statements," the judge wrote.

The design endorsed one religion to the exclusion of other faiths, the judge found.

"Here, the primary emphasis is a Christian grave, which may lead observers to believe that Lake Elsinore is only honoring Christian veterans," Wilson wrote.

"I'm pleased Judge Wilson decided to uphold the valuable principles contained within the First Amendment," said Appignani Humanist Legal Center Director David Niose. "I hope that if members of the city council still want to honor veterans, they will move forward with a monument design that represents everyone who fought for our freedoms."

The city said it may appeal.

"We are disappointed with the court's decision," the city said in statement. "We plan to take a close look at the ruling. Our goal has always been to recognize the men and women who have bravely served to protect our country and our freedoms. We remain committed to this goal."

Lake Elsinore, pop. 53,000, is the northernmost of a trio of cities in the Temecula Valley. The other cities are Murrieta and Temecula.

Because of the name - Elsinore - the team mascot, a sea dragon, is named Hamlet, after the castle where the Shakespearean character lived.

Lake Elsinore was a much-loved retreat for Hollywood stars of the Prohibition Era, who came to enjoy a now-abandoned casino overlooking the lake, and escape the Prohibition agents, who were more numerous in L.A.

Today the Santa Ana Mountains above Lake Elsinore are a world-famous hang gliding jump-off point.

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