It’s the agonizing case of the little cross that could.
First erected on Sunrise Rock in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in memory of the dead of all wars, the small remote symbol -- hidden away in California’s Mojave Desert -- finds itself at the center of an ideological war between the ACLU and a handful of military heroes.
The ACLU, or American Civil Liberties Union, succeeded in obtaining a ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that the familiar icon topping Sunrise Rock violated the doctrine of separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, Ken Salazar v. Frank Buono.
A lot of Marines will be following that case and the arguments laid down in a brief to the high court by the Thomas Moore Law Center and its ally the Individual Rights Foundation. Meanwhile, the Sunrise Rock cross remains covered by a court ordered shroud -- in case a passing hiker or off-road-vehicle enthusiast in this remote desert terrain might take offense.
Fallen Marine comrades have memorial plaques placed at the site of another cross long under assault by the ACLU -- the cross at Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial. Should the Supreme Court affirm the Ninth Circuit’s ruling re the Sunrise Rock cross, the cross site at Mt. Soledad, which has been the subject of much litigation over the past twenty years, will be newly threatened as well.
The heroes whose memorial plaques are under assault include: Vietnam prisoner of war Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton, USN (Ret.) and Marine Majors Michael D. Martino and Gerald Bloomfield, III, both of whom were killed in combat in Iraq on November 2, 2005.
In the Law Center brief, the Justices are reminded by the attorney-authors of words already spoken in past opinions by the Supreme Court:
“It has never been thought either possible or desirable to enforce a regime of total separation. Nor does the Constitution require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.”
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the Law Center, believes in the import of those words and commented, “Through our brief and the compelling stories of the war heroes we represent, we want the court to feel the devastating impact removing crosses will have on those who have sacrificed so much for this country.
“Since the beginning of America, crosses have been used to memorialize our fallen war veterans and to give solace to their families and comrades. Ironically, the Ninth Circuit used the very constitution these veterans defended with their lives to order the destruction of the memory of their heroic sacrifices. Sadly, the cross in the Mojave Desert is currently covered from view until the appeal is resolved.”
According to language in the introduction to the law center’s brief, Jeremiah Denton is a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, a prisoner of war from July 18, 1965 to February 13, 1973, a former U.S. Senator from the State of Alabama, and also serves as the chairman of the Thomas More Law Center’s Advisory Board.
Admiral Denton first came to the attention of the American public during a television interview arranged by his North Vietnamese captors in 1966. Expected to give “proper responses” to a journalist’s recitation of alleged American war atrocities, Admiral Denton affirmed his faith in America, stating, “I will support it as long as I live.”
While responding to questions from his interrogator, Admiral Denton blinked his eyes in Morse Code, repeatedly spelling out the covert message “TORTURE.” His message was the first confirmation that American POWs were being tortured.
During his nearly eight years as a POW, Admiral Denton was subjected to severe torture. He became the first American military captive to be subjected to four years of solitary confinement.
In 2008, Admiral Denton’s sacrifice was honored and memorialized at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial. A plaque in his honor was placed under the cross at the veterans’ memorial during a ceremony held on September 19, 2008, the 2008 National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Previously, in May 2006, Major Martino and Major Bloomfield’s unit, which had recently returned from Iraq, sponsored a plaque-dedication ceremony at the memorial to commemorate the fallen Marines’ heroic service and to provide a place to honor them.
More than three hundred Marines stood in line in the hot sun for over three hours to meet the Marines' families and to pay respect for their fallen comrades, note the brief’s authors.
The brief’s authors argue: “These ceremonies reveal the importance of such memorials, which provide a lasting tribute to our servicemen and servicewomen. They provide places where family members, friends, and comrades of our war veterans can pay tribute to their heroes’ sacrifices.
“Consequently, these memorials, including the crosses, convey an unmistakably American message of patriotism and self-sacrifice; they do not ‘establish’ Christianity as a national religion, as the ACLU and others who are hostile to religion contend.”
Robert Muise, a Thomas More Law Center attorney and brief author, said, “Our brief demonstrates that removing crosses from veterans’ memorials will cause real, irreparable harm to our war heroes and their grieving families -- as compared with the contrived ‘harm’ the ACLU and others who are hostile to religion will ‘feel’ because the memorial crosses remain.”
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