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Judge rejects California city’s religious war memorial

Photo illustration of planned monument at Lake Elsinore, Calif. municipal baseball stadium. Illustration courtesy of The American Humanist Association, public record

(RNS) A California federal judge has rejected a proposed religious memorial at a publicly owned baseball stadium as a violation of both federal and state laws.

Photo illustration of planned monument at Lake Elsinore, Calif. municipal baseball stadium. Illustration courtesy of The American Humanist Association, public record

Photo illustration of planned monument at Lake Elsinore, Calif. municipal baseball stadium. Illustration courtesy of The American Humanist Association, public record

On Thursday (Feb. 27), U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson of California’s Central District ruled that a granite monument depicting a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross lacked “a secular purpose” and has “the unconstitutional effect” of endorsing religion over nonreligion.

The decision came nine months after a lawsuit was filed by the American Humanist Association, a national organization of nonbelievers. The memorial was planned for city property in Lake Elsinore, Calif., a community of about 53,000 people in Southern California’s Riverside County.

The monument was designed in 2012 by a 22-member committee appointed by Lake Elsinore’s City Council and included its mayor, members of a local veterans group and a representative of the city’s minor league baseball team, the Storm.

When the design was presented to the City Council for review, some residents objected to the memorial’s religious nature. Members of the City Council spoke in support of it, specifically citing its Christian nature as suitable for public property.

Councilwoman Melissa Melendez, a veteran, cited America as “a Christian nation” and proposed the city go ahead with the memorial to test its legality.

“I think at some point you have to take a stand,” she said, according to court documents. Melendez is no longer on the council.

David Niose, director of AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, supported the judge’s decision, which is open to appeal.

“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,” he said in a statement.


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • Both positions stated in this case are faulty.

    First, former councilwoman Melissa Melendez cited America as a Christian nation. It is not, and even if it was or is that should have no bearing on how the law is applied.

    Second, Judge Wilson ruled that the soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross has “the unconstitutional effect” of endorsing religion over nonreligion. What “unconstitutional effect” is he referring to?? The First Amendment prohibits two things – congress from making a law respecting the establishment of religion, and from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. In what way has this display violated the First Amendment? There is no violation.

    What we do have however is yet another judge reading into the constitution what is not there. Very sad.

  • Ok I’m pretty much an Atheist. I have little to no use for religion. I looked at this Memorial and see a soldier kneeling at Arlington National Cemetery. That is where many of our Fallen are laid to rest and where many veterans go to mourn and remember them. Come on people relax… it’s a beautiful memorial and some people are just way over thinking it and looking for a reason to be offended on this one! Hope a private business owner or land owner will find a home for it. And to those who have served in our Military… THANK YOU!!

  • Ironic that they would choose to honor those who fought and died for our great country by attempting to violate one of the tenets it was founded on. Unfortunately. they are so wrapped up in the righteousness of their beliefs, they fail to think they some of those who fought and died did not believe in their religion, or did not believe in any religion. Their actions not only dishonors the memories of those solders, but of all solders as whet they wanted to do is simply unpatriotic.
    Thank you Judge Wilson! May your example be followed by all judges in our great country.

    Religion is poison!

  • Regarding Judge Wilson’s ruling–he is correct. The First Amendment’s establishment clause is intended to separate church from state. In the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the establishment clause to the states through the 14th Amendment. Today, the establishment clause prohibits ALL levels of government from either advancing or inhibiting religion.

    This issue took place on city property in Lake Elsinore, Calif. The judge is correct in ruling that Lake Elsinore cannot advance religion in the form of a monument depicting a cross.

  • Actually there is an abundance of case history in which the Supreme Court has defined the First Amendment.

    The display depicts a soldier (representing our U.S. service men and women) kneeling before a torture device that the Supreme Court has ruled as a religious symbol representing the Christian Faith.

    By placing this monument on public grounds it gives the appearance of government endorsement of a particular religion, hence the lawsuit.

  • Melendez’s quote is clear proof the purpose was to endorse Christianity as the official public religion. It goes to an intent to violate the Establishment Clause. The purpose of the monument was sectarian and discriminatory in nature.

    As for the ruling of the monument, your take on it is completely incorrect. The monument is clearly endorsing Christianity through government acts. Kneeling before a cross can’t be interpreted as anything honestly as other than Christian prayer. Christianity is not the only religion in this nation. Endorsing one faith over all other’s gives the impression that others are not going to expect the protection of law. It is not a support of atheism which compels the monument’s removal it is respect for faiths other than Christianity which does.

    Your understanding of the Constitution is defective. You do not grasp what the establishment clause really means.

  • Actually Chad, if you have read the constitution, it is violating the 1st Amendment (Congress shall not endorse nor ban religion) and it’s also violating the 14th Amendment of selective incorporation (Most of the Bill of Rights [the first 10 Amendments]) will now apply to the States).

    So, it’s violating the 1st and 14th Amendment because the City government is using state and, probably, federal tax dollars to build this monument without consent of the people. If there is to be a religious monument, it should be built from a PRIVATE organization, and not on public land.

  • Too bad this issue was escalated to a U.S. District Judge. What purpose did that acheive? I graduated from Elsinore High School in 1988 and I was a Soldier “Combat Arms,” on active duty for 22 Years of Service. I believe those whom have never served or risked their life in a direct fire engagement should simply leave this issue alone, because the issue isn’t about atheism or an agenda. It is about our brothers and sisters who didn’t return home with us. Only by the Grace of God did I survive 36 months of combat. “Whom else can I serve, where else can I go?” Articles like this convinced me to retire outside of California, when the Army was done with me. As far as the Honorable Melissa Melendez goes; she is the best thing going for Elsinore and District 67. “Remain vigilent, do the right thing, and take care of your brother.” A Soldier from Elsinore Class of 88!