On Tuesday, February 25, 2014, Central California US District Judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled that a veterans memorial monument that the city of Lake Elsinore proposed placing in front of the city’s minor league baseball stadium showing a soldier kneeling in front of a cross was unconstitutional because it violated both the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the Establishment and No Preference Clauses of the California Constitution.
The original design had only a cross. During discussions about the design, some people objected to the religious symbolism of the cross and the City Attorney also said it might be a good idea to not have it. But some city council members present felt that it was time to “take a stand” for religion and keep it in. The five-member city council eventually approved the final design (now with a Star of David added in the background) by a unanimous vote in November 2012.
The American Humanists Association sued to stop the city and got a preliminary injunction in July 2013. After a full trial, they won the case. In his opinion, the judge used the Lemon test (based on the 1971 US Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman) to arrive at his verdict. As I have written before, to pass muster under the Lemon test, any governmental action must pass all three of the following tests:
First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose (the ‘purpose’ prong)
Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion (the ‘effect’ prong);
Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” (the ‘entanglement” prong)
The judge ruled that the image on the memorial, the history of its adoption, and the statements made by its supporters showed that it violated both the purpose and effect prongs of the Lemon Tests.
The judge refreshingly reverted to the older and stronger standard that neutrality under the Establishment Clause applies not just between religious sects (as some argue more recently) but also between religion and nonreligion, saying “If objects associated with religion are instead displayed primarily for religious purposes, the government sends the impermissible message that certain religious groups are favored over others, or that religion is favored over nonreligion.”