The separation of church and state comes to Riverside

This month developments regarding the display of religious symbols in the cities of Lake Elsinore and Riverside received national attention. The Washington, D.C.-based Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, in a letter to Lake Elsinore’s city council, objected to the display of a cross in a proposed veteran’s memorial to be displayed at Diamond Stadium. A group of Lake Elsinore residents also took exception to the cross and made their position known but to no avail, as the council voted 5-0 to approve the proposed veteran’s memorial to cheers of support. It will cost 50,000 tax dollars and possibly much more if litigation follows. Meanwhile, the city of Riverside is considering options for the cross displayed atop Mount Rubidoux after Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a letter threatening a lawsuit if the cross is not removed, citing the First Amendment establishment clause.

As similar as these matters may appear, they couldn’t be more different. In the case of Mount Rubidoux, the cross was erected in 1907 to honor the memory of Father Junipero Serra for public service, at a time when the property in question was owned by the Huntington Park Association and purchased with the intention of developing a park for the city. In 1955, the property was donated to the city. Members of the community supporting the continued display of the Rubidoux Cross hope a recent Supreme Court decision approving the display of a cross at Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve will bolster their position. However, this decision required a 2003 act of Congress authorizing a land transfer that made Sunrise Rock private property. It also relied on the Supreme Court’s assistance in directing a federal judge to review the land transfer before approving the cross.

Unlike Lake Elsinore or Sunrise Rock, Mount Rubidoux’s cross is not a veterans’ memorial, which may prove beneficial in securing the display of the cross for generations to come. The cross is a historic memoriam, symbolic of a headstone, in memory of Fr. Serra for all members of the Riverside community. This distinction coupled with Supreme Court decisions supporting the display of religious symbols on headstones may serve to preserve the cross. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs oversees 131 National Cemeteries in 39 states and each headstone allows for the inscription and display of a veteran’s faith. The Supreme Court decision, for this purpose, claimed that headstones are exceptions to the rule when displaying religious symbols on government property.

This exception coupled with Lemon v. Kurtzman may prove beneficial to the city of Riverside. The Lemon case established the test to be used when determining the separation of church and state and requires that government actions be secular, do not advance or inhibit religion and do not foster excessive entanglement with religion. The history and intent taken in connection with Mount Rubidoux’s cross were not initiated by government on government land at the time, nor were they performed for the purpose of professing a single faith, but rather for the purpose of honoring the memory of an historic figure. If Riverside has neither sponsored nor deterred the use of Mount Rubidoux for religious purposes and assumed responsibility for the maintenance of an historically significant memorial, I believe an argument can be made that doesn’t involve the sale or transfer of land, decades of litigation, the removal of the cross, or the conversion of the cross to the Riverside Raincross. At best, a dedication plaque establishing the cross’ history and purpose should suffice.

This is not the case for Lake Elsinore whose representatives have been outspoken in support of the cross and its religious significance. There is no secular intention in the design of the memorial honoring fallen veterans. The Supreme Court considers history and intent carefully when determining the establishment clause.

The Lemon test for Lake Elsinore includes all activity and dialogue surrounding the proposed veteran’s memorial. According to the Press-Enterprise, a group of local veterans were asked to re-examine the proposed design after concerns were expressed and they declined to remove the cross or consider alternatives. If the matter is later argued in a court of law, this position can be considered a violation of the First Amendment establishment clause. Recognizing this problem, Councilwoman Melissa Melendez urged the committee to add the Star of David, which they agreed to. However, this action does not change intent or history and may support arguments establishing a non-secular divisive purpose, because it proposed a remedy recognizing the design did not satisfy secular purpose.

For example, the Supreme Court allowed the display of a nativity scene in the municipal square of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, because of its historical origin and secular significance, but in Pittsburgh, the Court held that the nativity scene was unconstitutional because of intent, even though it included a secular presentation. The Court ruled that Pittsburgh intended to promote a single religion because the nativity scene was placed out front and center giving it greater significance. The fact that Lake Elsinore’s city council did not consider secular symbols, such as a headstone or a rifle planted with bayonet into the ground and a helmet on the butt end, does not speak well to secular purpose or intent, as established in the Lemon case.

However, the most damaging and possibly telling statement was made by Ralph Zunker, of American Legion Post 200, when he said, “These people need to go and find another place to live other than America,” referring to those opposed to the cross. Someone should explain to Mr. Zunker that they did. Beginning in 1630, more than 20,000 Puritans emigrated to America to escape religious persecution, and once established in New England they expelled dissenters from their colony and dealt out savage punishment for sedition. One man was sentenced to life imprisonment, his property confiscated, his nose slit, an ear cut off, and his forehead branded with “S.S.” (sower of sedition). This is an attitude that may prevail in today’s society and be more mainstream than we may care to admit. When a federal court ordered an Alabama court to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from public display, 77 percent of Americans disapproved. When asked if a monument of the Quran should be in public schools or government buildings 64 percent of Americans disapproved, according to a Gallup Poll in 2003.

There is historical evidence linking religion to the colonization of our country, which may be the very reason our founding fathers understood the importance of the separation of church and state. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote, “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross.” I do not contend that those who favor a cross are like Mr. Zunker, but when one’s faith disparages other religions it is simply Un-American. We must respect our laws and each other and in doing so our different faiths or we too may find ourselves supporting the expulsion of those that do not believe as we do.

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