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A Cross is a Cross, Especially on Government Land

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December 9, 2009

Today, the ACLU and ACLU of San Diego will argue before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the Mt. Soledad cross, a Latin cross that sits atop federal land in Southern California, violates the First Amendment prohibition against government-endorsed religion.

In July 2008, a federal judge ruled that the cross is constitutional after the federal government obtained the land the cross sits on through a special act of Congress. He rationalized this decision by saying that the primary effect of this prominent cross is “patriotic and nationalistic, not religious.” Today’s argument before the 9th Circuit is an appeal of that decision.

We will argue that the federal government’s acquisition of the land in 2006 was nothing more than an effort to evade a long series of clear court decisions invalidating the city of San Diego’s display of the 43-foot tall cross. (The first lawsuit against this particular cross was brought in 1989, on behalf of an atheist Vietnam War veteran.) Courts have routinely recognized that governmental displays of distinctly sectarian symbols, such as crosses, violate the First Amendment.

The ACLU has always defended the First Amendment rights of individuals to freely practice their religion, or no religion at all. But the government’s display of the Soledad cross violates that same First Amendment right by privileging one set of beliefs over all others.

Or put it this way: A giant cross in front of a church or on your front lawn is fine, and we’d defend your constitutional right to these displays. But a giant cross on government land is not.

See the difference?

We hope the 9th Circuit does.

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