Entrance to the Lake Elsinore Diamond, home to the Lake Elsinore Storm, a minor league baseball team.
Entrance to the Lake Elsinore Diamond, home to the Lake Elsinore Storm, a minor league baseball team. (Photo: Dirk Hansen via Wikimedia Commons)

A federal judge has blocked plans to build a war memorial at a minor league baseball stadium in California on the ground it would unconstitutionally endorse a religion.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson of the Central District of California came in a lawsuit filed on May 30 by the American Humanist Association, which advocates for the separation of church and state. The organization objected to plans to depict a soldier kneeling in prayer before a tombstone in the shape of a Christian cross.

Wilson had granted a preliminary injunction temporarily stopping construction on July 15. In October, he presided over a bench trial on motions for summary judgment. And on Tuesday, he ruled that the monument violated both the First Amendment’s establishment clause and California’s establishment and no-preference clauses because it endorsed a religion.

“When a symbol generally associated with religion is included as part of a larger display, the relevant question is whether the government had a predominantly secular purpose for including the religious symbol within the context of the larger setting,” Wilson wrote. “Here, the primary emphasis is a Christian grave, which may lead observers to believe that Lake Elsinore is only honoring Christian veterans.”

“I’m very pleased with the outcome,” said Monica Miller, an attorney for the humanist association, a Washington nonprofit organization whose members include atheists and other nonreligious individuals. “He correctly ruled on both the federal establishment claim as well as the state constitutional claims, and I think the result will be that no new religious monuments can be placed on public property in California.”

The city of Lake Elsinore, Calif., whose council approved the memorial, was represented in the case by Michael Peffer, an attorney in Santa Ana, Calif., with Sacramento’s Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit organization that espouses religious freedom and parental rights.

Peffer said the institute was disappointed at the decision. “The City of Lake Elsinore is exploring its options for appeal,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

The humanist association filed the case on behalf of two of its members, both residents of Lake Elsinore who objected to the use of almost $50,000 in public money to construct the monument. The suit named the city, which owns the stadium, and individual members of the city council including the mayor.

In his opinion, Wilson relied on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s 2011 decision in Trunk v. City of San Diego, which found a memorial in the shape of a cross in La Jolla, Calif., unconstitutional. He also cited comments during the city council discussions. The mayor pro tempore, for instance, declared: “I feel sorry for us that we as Christians cannot show the cross because of the First Amendment. Okay. It really is a shame that our society, to me, is leaning that way.”

Such statements “sent a powerful message that those who considered the cross to be inappropriate were not welcomed, and that the cross was a religious symbol worth fighting for,” Wilson wrote.

He discounted any similarity to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Van Order v. Perry, which found that a display of the Ten Commandments on a monument at the Texas state capitol was constitutional because it was historic, not religious, in nature.

The original version of the monument in Lake Elsinore depicted a soldier kneeling at a tombstone in the shape of a Christian cross, but a modified version added a row of crosses and two Stars of David—similar to historic World War II memorials. Wilson called Lake Elsinore’s revisions a “litigating position.”

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.