For nearly two decades, the ACLU has waged war against the cross in the public square, turning the laws meant to protect freedom of speech against small communities whose budgets can't stand up to a political Goliath.
Now the ACLU may meet its match.
In a face-off coinciding with Memorial Day weekend, the American Legion-the largest veterans service organization in the United States-in partnership with Alliance Defense Fund and Liberty Legal Institute will declare war. It plans to serve notice to the ACLU on May 24 that attacks on war memorials will no longer be tolerated.
The first salvo in this courtroom war was fired by the ACLU in 1989 with a suit to remove the 29-foot Mount Soledad cross, a war memorial overlooking the San Diego harbor since 1913 and providing inspiration to returning Navy vessels.
In 1991, District Court Judge Gordon Thompson found the cross in violation of the U.S. Constitution and ordered it removed. In 1992, the City of San Diego sold the land under the cross to a private organization-a move approved not once, but twice, by voters.
Though the cross still stands, its permanent fate remains unresolved as the ACLU continues to fight the legality of the land transfer. On May 3, 2006, Judge Thompson ordered the cross removed within 90 days, imposing a $5,000 per day fine against the City of San Diego for every day it continues to stand.
Meanwhile, on a less likely battle front, another war memorial in the Mojave Desert (pictured)-erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to honor those who fought and died in World War I-has been boarded up so as not to offend tourists who might wander 11 miles off the beaten track to be offended by it. In response to an ACLU suit, the 9th Circuit Court ruled in 2004 that the cross must be removed. And that litigation grinds on as a privatization plan has also been challenged by the ACLU.
The Mount Soledad and Mojave Desert crosses are only the most visible of thousands of war memorials now at risk across the nation. As the World War II generation approaches its final rest-30,000 veterans are buried monthly-they are increasingly frustrated as the American freedoms they fought to defend are perverted under the notion that "freedom of religion" means "freedom from religion."
Rees Lloyd, a veteran who bugles at burials at Riverside National Cemetery, describes how he and all the veterans participating wear sunglasses-not to be California cool, but to hide the tears in their eyes as they watch the flag-folding ceremonies and see the pride of the families honoring the fathers, uncles, and brothers who served.
Lloyd, a former ACLU lawyer, is now co-author of the October 2006 resolution announcing the Veterans Memorial Project. He said he seethes at the way the ACLU is "using the threat of this financial punishment as a club to bludgeon communities into submission."
To combat what the Legion calls "secular cleansing litigation," the member-driven organization has developed a battle plan, working not only at the national level with a campaign kickoff this month, but also as members of 14,500 legion posts to create a national registry of all war memorials and to begin "educating and activating" local communities to understand the threat posed by the ACLU's attacks on the war memorials.
"For decades the ACLU has painted its opposition as religious zealots. Now 2.7 million veterans have had enough," Lloyd said. "For the ACLU-people who overwhelmingly did not serve-to tell us how we can or cannot honor the sacrifice of our veterans is obscene."
-Barbara Curtis is a writer in Waterford, Va.