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House passes bill to allow religious symbols on war memorials

The House on Tuesday approved a measure that seeks to permit religious symbols on federal war memorials, a response to a court ruling that declared a cross atop a San Diego memorial violated the Constitution.

The War Memorial Protection Act passed on a voice vote in the Republican-controlled House but faces uncertainty in the Senate.

The measure, which would allow religious symbols to be included in military monuments, was introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the 43-foot cross atop Mt. Soledad an unconstitutional “government endorsement of religion.”

The measure’s approval came the same day the House passed a bill, the World War II Memorial Prayer Act, to authorize installation of a plaque or inscription at the World War II Memorial in Washington of the prayer that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on the morning of the Allies’ invasion of Europe.

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Hunter said his legislation was needed in the face of legal challenges against the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial “and the likelihood of more to come.”

“Our Constitution protects the freedom of religion, not freedom from it,” Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Carlsbad), a bill co-sponsor, told his colleagues. “This issue is one that has gone so far that we’re actually talking about tearing crosses down over war memorials.”

But Dena Sher, legislative counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, called the bill “a misguided attempt to sanction government promotion of religion.”

“When a religious symbol is included in a war memorial favoring one religion over others, it’s simply unconstitutional,” she said. “Congress cannot legislate around the Constitution, nor should it be using religion to score political points.”

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The House vote was the latest effort in Congress to preserve the cross. In 2006, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed legislation transferring the city-owned land beneath the Mt. Soledad memorial to the federal government.

“War memorials, including those with religious symbols, deserve to be protected for what they are: testaments to military service,” Hunter said at a hearing on the bill last year.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, dismissed the vote as political posturing, saying it would not affect the court case.

The court did not order the cross removed. Instead, the case was sent back to a federal trial judge on the issue of whether it can be modified to “pass constitutional muster.” But the court did not suggest how the cross and surrounding property could be reconfigured.

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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