One of the longest-running cases in American history concerning religious symbols and the Establishment Clause, stretching over 27 years of litigation and two requests for Supreme Court review, ended quietly in a settlement. The case involving the Mount Soledad cross ended so quietly that it would be easy to overlook it altogether, and thus miss its significance for defenders of religious liberty. But this case, which lasted longer than Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has been in existence, became a rallying point for ADF and allies from across the country. And it has a lot to teach us as the battle to ensure that Christianity is allowed to participate in the increasingly secular public square intensifies each day.
The case unfolded as follows: For decades a 29-foot memorial cross sat in the veterans’ memorial atop Mount Soledad, in San Diego, California. Constructed in 1954, the memorial cross stood as a traditional symbol of honor and respect for those who sacrificed in serving their nation. In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit claiming that the presence of a cross on a government-owned property constituted an establishment of religion and was therefore illegal.
Courts consistently ruled against the cross until 2006, when Supreme Court Justice Kennedy issued a stay, overturning a lower court order to remove the cross, and paving the way for the federal government to acquire the property and moot the case. The ACLU continued to battle the presence of the cross at the memorial until this year, when the property was transferred to a private organization, ending the claim that the cross constituted an establishment of religion.
The clearest lesson for defenders of religious liberty from this case is to persevere, because victory does not always look like what we expect.
There were many adverse rulings throughout the 27 years of this case, and it repeatedly looked as if the cross was only days from being dismantled. But through intervention after intervention, it remains standing today. For example, after a judge ordered the cross to be removed, defenders of religious liberty in Congress moved in 2006 to transfer the land from the state to the federal government. Through the persistence of Christian organizations, attorneys, and individuals, Congress voted to transfer the land, rendering moot the central claim of the ACLU’s lawsuit.
The ACLU and other opponents of religious liberty battled for 27 years to tear down the memorial’s cross. But today, thanks to God’s grace and the persistence of faithful men and women, the cross is still standing. It stands as a reminder of the unexpected ways that victory can come, even in the midst of a seemingly hopeless struggle and unrelenting defeat. The Mount Soledad case reminds us to keep our eyes fixed on the True Cross, which can never be destroyed.
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Sometimes, victory comes swiftly, and other times it drags on. Sometimes, it is hard to see a victory at all. In a culture that is increasingly hostile to religious liberty, and with a new president in the White House, we cannot predict future challenges to our freedoms. Instead, we continue to work to keep the doors open for the Gospel, persevering in the knowledge that God is at work and that He is in control.
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