Lawmakers Seek Amendment in Wake of Outcry Over Crosses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to the legal wrangle over two San Diego-area hilltop crosses, a group of politicians announced Thursday that they will seek a state constitutional amendment to clear the way for the display of religious symbols on public property.

Assemblywoman Carol Bentley (R-El Cajon) said she will introduce legislation to amend the California Constitution so that it provides the same protections for religious freedoms as the U.S. Constitution.

The proposal immediately drew sharp criticism from civil libertarians and law professors, who said the state Constitution currently offers broader protections than the federal Constitution in the emotionally charged field of separation of church and state.

And at least one of the politicians who had signed up to co-sponsor the bill, Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-Del Mar), said Thursday that she has reconsidered her position. The bill could set a dangerous precedent, especially for abortion rights, if state-backed rights were linked to federal standards, Alpert said.

On Dec. 3, U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. in San Diego ruled that the Mt. Soledad cross in La Jolla and the Mt. Helix cross near La Mesa violate the state Constitution's ban on mixing church and state. For the same reason, Thompson ordered the city of La Mesa to remove depictions of the Mt. Helix cross from its official insignia.

The case has since been prime talk show and editorial page fodder. Both cities and the county vowed to appeal.

Earlier this week, the federal appellate court that serves California and the West, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, heard oral arguments in the case. It could be weeks or months before the court issues a ruling, but a three-judge panel signaled that it seemed likely to affirm Thompson's ruling.

Thompson's ruling was based on the guarantee in the California Constitution of the free exercise of religion "without discrimination or preference." That so-called no preference clause forbids a municipal body from appearing to favor one religion over another. The U.S. Constitution lacks such a clause.

Because of the little-known clause, the state Constitution forbids even "the appearance of religious partiality," and the Mt. Soledad and Mt. Helix crosses loom large as huge symbols of Christianity, Thompson said.

Bentley's proposal would leave the "no preference" clause in the state Constitution. But it would add a section directing judges to interpret it as if it were the federal Constitution.

To become law, the amendment needs the two-thirds vote of the state Legislature, then voter approval.

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