A broader view of the symbolism of the cross

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Times Staff Writer

For two decades the emotionally volatile issue of the 43-foot cross atop Mt. Soledad has been in the state and federal courts.

Nearly all the rounds have been won by plaintiffs who say the cross, erected in the early 1950s, is an unconstitutional intrusion of religion on public property.

The legal fight has outlasted the careers of numerous politicians and judges and the life span of the original plaintiff. Various legal and political stratagems by city officials to save the cross failed.


When the cross was slated for removal by judicial order, Congress stepped in and took control. President Bush signed a bill in 2006 transferring the property to the federal government as an official war memorial.

On walls surrounding the cross are 2,000-plus plaques memorializing the lives of service personnel, including soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War and Marines killed in Iraq.

Then in late July, a new judge issued a ruling that seemed to wash away all the previous rulings that had favored the plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ruled that Congress had taken the property not to advance Christianity, but to maintain the cross as an integral part of a war memorial. As such, he reasoned, there was nothing unconstitutional about the cross.

In a 36-page opinion, Burns, a graduate of San Diego’s Point Loma Nazarene University, ruled that a cross doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a religious symbol:

“The Latin cross is, to be sure, the preeminent symbol of Christianity, but it does not follow that the cross has no other meaning or significance. Depending on the context in which it is displayed, the cross may evoke no particular religious impression at all.”


Burns said he respects the “honest and deeply-felt offense” the plaintiffs feel toward having the cross on public property. But he noted:

“The cross has a broadly-understood ancillary meaning as a symbol of military service, sacrifice, and death; it is displayed along with numerous purely secular symbols in an overall context that reinforces its secular message.”

The American Civil Liberties Union chapter of San Diego and Imperial counties, representing several plaintiffs including the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, has appealed Burns’ ruling to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The arguments, currently unscheduled, will involve closely reasoned interpretations of numerous court decisions involving placement of religious symbols and icons on public property.

Meanwhile, The Times asked representatives of several faith communities in Southern California for their view of Burns’ opinion that a cross does not always have to be viewed as a Christian symbol.

Here is a sampling of the reactions, which carry some of the same divisions as the legal arguments:


Keith Atkinson, West Coast spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

“There are lots of symbols that mean different things to different people. To us, the cross symbolizes what Jesus did for us at Calvary, but we are not opposed to others seeing things differently. I don’t know that we can exclusively claim the cross any more than we can claim the moon and the stars.”

Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and author of the recent “Why Faith Matters”:

“If a cross is not a Christian symbol, then Christianity is without a symbol. The cross is the quintessential Christian symbol and has been believed so by Christians, Jews and Muslims. Symbols have to be understood by the community that cares about them and the community at large. I find it surprising that anyone would think otherwise.”

Jim Garlow, evangelical Christian and pastor of Skyline Church in La Mesa:

“The whole reason for any cross anywhere in our culture is because of the person of Jesus Christ and his staggering sacrifice he made on our behalf. I don’t have any problem with the judge’s ruling, but I wish he had gone in the historicity of the question. This was founded as a Christian nation and its values come from Christianity.”

Remo Alexaneri, spokesman for Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church:

“I agree with the judge. The cross is predominantly a Christian symbol but it has other meanings as well. All meanings should be respected.”


Varun Soni, a Hindu, lawyer and dean of Religious Life at USC:

“Elements of Christianity have shaped our national civic religion. Public Protestantism has become part of our collective civic culture. . . . However, many non-Christian faith practitioners in the U.S. do not feel that the cross culturally represents them as Americans, regardless of its context or venue. . . . I believe that 1st Amendment cases (like the Mount Soledad case) . . . should now be analyzed through interfaith and multi-faith lenses.”

At the heart of the case, as Burns saw it, is respect for a war memorial.

The jurist, in his written decision, noted that the cross and the memorial have particular meaning in San Diego, which has “long been known as a ‘Navy town’ with a strong military presence [which] retains that image and reputation today even though it is one of America’s largest cities.”

In another high-profile case, Burns also factored a respect for the military into his decision.

While sentencing disgraced Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in March 2006 for bribery and tax evasion, Burns said he felt Cunningham was owed a measure of leniency because of his service as an aviator during the Vietnam War.

Burns noted that he had a high draft number during “that unpopular war” and that, unlike Cunningham, he avoided military service. He rejected prosecutors’ appeal to ignore Cunningham’s service in determining his sentence, which Burns set at eight years in prison.

In his cross ruling, Burns quotes lines from John McCrae’s World War I poem “In Flanders Fields.” It too included a reference to crosses.


“In Flanders Fields, the

poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place . . .

We are the Dead.”