January 28, 2012 (Washington, D.C.) – Yesterday the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 290, the War Memorial Protection Act. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The War Memorial Protection Act—which allows for the inclusion of religious symbols on war memorials—was introduced by Hunter in response to a ruling by the Ninth Circuit which declared San Diego’s Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial unconstitutional. The measure is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Across the country and beyond our shores, America’s military and veterans are proudly represented by war memorials that also display symbols of personal faith and religion,” said Hunter. “In many cases, these memorials represent not just individuals, but the shared commitment and sacrifice of those who serve, and those who never made it home.
For the 131 national cemeteries under the purview of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 48 distinct emblems of belief are currently authorized, including symbols for Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims.
The Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial features a prominent cross that has long been a local landmark as well a lightning rod for controversy.
Historical records referred to it as the "Easter Cross" as early as the 1890s.Critics note that the site was not established as a war memorial until 10 years after the first court case was filed.
Numerous legal challenges have been filed seeking removal of the cross, including challenges brought by an atheist and a Jewish group; the latter has cited a past record of discrimination in La Jolla. The City has transferred ownership of the land to the federal government, thus San Diego is not a defendant in the ongoing litigation.
In January 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled]the cross unconstitutional. Judge McKeown wrote for the court, "Overall, a reasonable observer viewing the Memorial would be confronted with an initial dedication for religious purposes, its long history of religious use, widespread public recognition of the Cross as a Christian symbol, and the history of religious discrimination in La Jolla." An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is anticipated.
“The Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial is still under attack, for its cross, and it’s a sure bet these attacks won’t stop with Mt. Soledad,” said Hunter. “In the face of legal challenges against Mt. Soledad and the likelihood of more to come, it’s important that Congress install the right protection for war memorials in federal law, allowing the spirit and tradition of honoring our nation’s military to continue.”
It is unclear, however, whether or not legislation authorizing the inclusion of religious symbols on war memorials would be found constitutional by the high court.