SAN DIEGO — Supporters of a war memorial cross deemed unconstitutional last year by a federal court rallied at the landmark on Thursday as lawyers asked the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, amid a growing fight nationwide over the use of religious symbols to honor fallen troops.
A nonprofit legal firm, Liberty Institute in Dallas, filed the petition on behalf of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association to preserve the 43-foot monument on federal land atop the picturesque San Diego peak overlooking the Pacific Ocean in suburban La Jolla.
The gathering by 75 supporters of the cross also drew about three-dozen people who want it taken down.
The supporters told the opponents that the cross isn't about religion, but about honoring service members. The memorial's plaques have names and stories of about 3,000 who served in conflicts from World War I to Iraq.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Jack Harkins said people come to Mount Soledad from across the country to reflect and remember those who fought for the values of the American people.
"Let future generations enjoy their right to that experience," he said. "Let this monument stand."
One of the opponents, Bruce Gleason, said it would be "grand" if the memorial included a 40-foot Star of David as well as Wiccan and atheist symbols.
"This cross is unconstitutional in a multitude of courts and every time that happens they've upped the ante," said Gleason, founder of the Backyard Skeptics of Villa Park, Calif. in neighboring Orange County.
The Supreme Court has signaled a greater willingness to allow religious symbols on public land, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last month that writes into law the propriety of displaying such markers at war memorials. Supporters are lobbying members of the Senate to approve it.
Members of the American Civil Liberties Union that won the lawsuit in the 9th Circuit said the bill ignores the Constitution, which they argued was written to ensure government monuments do not exclude people. They say memorials can honor troops without religious symbolism.
"Congress cannot, by definition, authorize the government to violate the Constitution," said David Loy, the ACLU's legal director in San Diego. "It's unconstitutional for the government to sponsor and maintain this particular cross that is visible for miles. The point of a war memorial or veterans' memorial is to remember all veterans."
Last year's ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals capped two decades of legal challenges over the cross that was used for Easter celebrations in the early 1900s and later became a memorial to Korean War veterans in the 1950s.
A number of other military memorials on public lands across the country have been challenged in recent years by civil liberty activists and atheists who say they violate the separation between church and state. The Supreme Court in 2010 refused to order the removal of a congressionally endorsed war memorial cross from its longtime home atop a remote rocky outcropping in California's Mojave Desert. That cross was later stolen and supporters are working on getting one restored to the spot.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, said he is not relying on the courts. He introduced the bill passed by the House in January that would codify the existing practice of allowing religious symbols at military monuments established or acquired by the federal government.
Hunter said he drafted the bill with the Mount Soledad monument in mind but it goes beyond that.
"This isn't just about San Diego," Hunter told The Associated Press. "This is about the rights of members of the military to adorn gravestones and war memorials to honor those who fought in wars with whatever the heck they want to have there, period. If you want to take down a war memorial cross or take any kind of religious symbolism off any war memorial because you say it's unconstitutional, then you would have to take the crosses off every headstone in national cemeteries from Arlington to Fort Rosecrans."
Hunter said opponents have been getting out of hand, challenging even personal memorials, like a pair of unsanctioned crosses on a remote rocky hilltop on the Marine Corps base of Camp Pendleton put up by individual Marines to honor fellow fallen troops. The military is looking into the matter.
The crosses are surrounded by thousands of rocks carried up by Marines, some of which are accompanied by handwritten messages. Opponents complained about the crosses, which cannot be seen by the public, after The Los Angeles Times wrote a story about them on Veterans Day 2011.
"It's getting old, getting burdensome and costly," Hunter said. "It's time to put an end to it."
The Mount Soledad Memorial Association oversees the site. Liberty Institute, the Texas nonprofit, describes itself as being guided by principles that promote Judeo-Christian values, litigating for religious freedoms, freedom of speech, parental and students' rights, and limited government.