Veterans Groups File Briefs in the Supreme Court Supporting ACLU In Mojave Cross Case

August 4, 2009 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A group of high-ranking retired military officers and government officials has joined the Jewish War Veterans, the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, the Muslim American Veterans Association and other groups in filing amicus briefs supporting the position of the American Civil Liberties Union that a stand-alone Latin cross in the Mojave National Preserve is not an appropriate national memorial to American veterans.

The briefs filed yesterday at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. argue that the cross – one of only 49 congressionally designated national war memorials – constitutes a government endorsement of Christianity. It does not, as the memorial’s defenders claim, commemorate all war dead and veterans, or all veterans of World War I. Rather, the cross sends the message that the military values the sacrifices of Christian soldiers over those of non-Christians, the groups said.

Such a message hurts the military as an institution, said the brief filed by former high-ranking military and government officials, who include Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, a 31-year veteran of the U.S. Army and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“Designation of a Christian symbol as a national memorial sends a signal that America values only the sacrifice of Christian soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. Israel Drazin, a 31-year veteran and ordained rabbi who, at 21, became the youngest U.S. chaplain ever to serve on active duty.

“That message is inconsistent with both the military’s commitment to respecting the faiths of all its men and woman equally, and its vital efforts to attract young men and women of every religious belief and national origin to serve their country.”

Two Muslim veterans’ groups filing an amicus brief in support of the ACLU said they “respect our Christian brothers in arms, and we respect their faith.” Nevertheless, “a memorial to American veterans should be a memorial to all American veterans, not only to Christian veterans…But the symbol chosen commemorates only the Christians,” said the brief filed by the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, and the Muslim American Veterans Association.

The briefs were filed in a case that successfully challenged the constitutionality of an eight-foot-tall Latin cross erected on federal land in the Mojave National Preserve. At issue now is whether a congressional law allowing that cross to remain in exactly the same place by transferring ownership of an acre of preserve land to the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars adequately addresses the constitutional violation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California that this transfer of federal land did not eliminate the government’s endorsement of religion, and thus did not solve the constitutional violation that the lower courts had already found. But the government appealed that decision, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case on October 7, 2009.

“As the son of a Jewish World War II Navy veteran, I am gratified that so many distinguished retired officers and veterans organizations have recognized what Congress has unfortunately ignored: We cannot honor all the men and women who have served our country in the military with a symbol that is worshipped only by believers of one religion,” said Peter Eliasberg, the attorney of record in the case and managing attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.

Eleven percent of current active members of the military say they belong to a non-Christian faith, while an additional 21 percent are atheists or report no religion. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims all serve in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theaters, and Jews and Muslims have fought in the American military in every war, including the Revolutionary War.

“Unlike individual headstones for fallen American soldiers, which appropriately reflect the personal religious preferences of those brave men and women, this cross claims to speak for all veterans,” said Daniel Mach, director of litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “But as the preeminent symbol of only one faith, this national memorial in the Mojave National Preserve sends a message that the sacrifices of non-Christians are not honored or valued.”

Other groups filing amicus briefs in support of the ACLU’s position in the case include the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Interfaith Alliance.

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