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Federal Court Trial Gets Underway Over Religious Symbols In Lake Elsinore

A court trial began Oct. 1 that will decide whether the City of Lake Elsinore can install at a public venue a taxpayer-funded memorial that depicts a Christian cross and Star of David.

U.S. Federal Court in Los Angeles.  File photo.
U.S. Federal Court in Los Angeles. File photo.
The trial in U.S. Federal Court to determine the legality of the proposed City of Lake Elsinore veterans' memorial depicting a Christian cross and Star of David began today in Los Angeles.

With the Honorable Steven V. Wilson presiding, the American Humanist Association representing Lake Elsinore-based plaintiffs John Larsen and Diana Hansen was up first and questioned former city employee and veterans' memorial ad hoc committee liaison Justin Carlson.

"I was on the committee and served as the middleman for the city," Carlson explained. "My job was to gather ideas for the ad hoc committee; it's my understanding the information I provided is the depiction of a World War II-era cemetery."

After about an hour on the stand, Carlson was dismissed after the judge commented, Carlson "doesn't have much to offer one way or the other."

Former Lake Elsinore City Councilwoman and current California Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez was second to the stand and said, "as a city, we were looking to honor all veterans, those who have served, those still serving and those who will serve."

Melendez' two hours on the witness stand had a brief five-minute interruption for testimony by former Lake Elsinore City Councilman Peter Weber who, according to attorneys, had a schedule conflict that necessitated the break.
Weber stated the Christian cross at the center of the memorial’s controversy "doesn't always signify religion," and said the proposed memorial is not an effort by the city to make a stand for religion.

The judge said the case before him is "about context. In Mr. Weber's view, the cross and Star of David are not about religion." 

While replaying elements of Lake Elsinore City Council meetings from 2012, each morning witness was asked to remember elements of events that led up to the city ultimately approving the memorial in November.

Melendez was fiery and repeatedly sparred with the plaintiffs’ lawyers Tuesday. During her term on the Lake Elsinore City Council, Melendez was a leading advocate for the cross and Star of David symbols on the proposed memorial.
Witnesses waiting to testify as the court took a lunch break were all the members of the current city council and a few members of the ad hoc committee.

Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute is representing the City of Lake Elsinore pro-bono, a move that Melendez helped secure.

The heart of the city’s argument is that the symbols proposed for the memorial are not religious when taken altogether.

Brad Dacus, president of PJI, told Patch they are an accurate depiction of a “World War II foreign cemetery.”

“It has a clear secular purpose,” Dacus said in July.

The proposed granite memorial depicts a soldier kneeling in front of a Christian cross and the Star of David. (See attached artist's rendering.) The $50,000 taxpayer-funded memorial is proposed to be installed at the entrance of The Diamond Stadium.

On July 16, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson granted a preliminary injunction sought by the plaintiffs after the city asked that the case be dismissed.

According to a written ruling by Wilson, the monument is an unconstitutional display by the municipality because it sends an "unmistakably religious message" that city leaders overtly support.

Wilson conceded the U.S. Supreme Court has made allowances for publicly financed religious displays in "borderline" instances of religious endorsement, but the cases were usually settled by the obvious presence of sectarian symbols that provided some balance.

“The court will look and assess as to whether [the memorial] has a valid and secular purpose and effect,” Dacus said.

William Burgess, an attorney with AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, doesn’t think the city’s argument has legal merit.

In July he said, “The city has clearly violated the First Amendment by unnecessarily choosing a divisively religious means of honoring our veterans. In addition, the California constitution prohibits any governmental funding whatsoever for religious purposes, including religious monuments.” -- By Patch staff with contributor assistance.


LAKE ELSINORE RESIDENT October 03, 2013 at 09:19 AM
Roberto she is the worse and like you have said before we can't afford malicious mel. She has turned me off with shady ways from the get go. Would someone please tell us exactly how much the city has paid so far for Malicious Mels monument with the star of david and crosses? George Alongi was murdered and the case should be solved not turned into a cold case file. If Zellerbach was a D.A. working for the people he would have a grand jury investigating the RDA caper, the Weirdomar City antics and other questionable activities.
Diana October 03, 2013 at 12:26 PM
LER my AKA'S are only made up in your mind as well as this drinking problem, you seem to be obsessed with me, you might want to seek out some professional help with the fantasies that you seem to have floating around in your mind about me, obsessing about someone for as long as you have me is just twisted, not to mention wrong in so many ways.
Roberto October 03, 2013 at 12:41 PM
I'm afraid I'll have to support DA Zellerbach. After Grover Trask and his chosen successor Ron Pacheco we finally had someone elected not tied to the inner circle. The Prosecutors Union is actively working to oust Zellerbach. These are the same cronies who Don't prosecute White Collar Crime, Child support arrears and are only concerned in numbers while allowing violent crime and theft to go unchecked. Is Zellerbcah ever going to do the right thing and fire all the lazy Unionized Prosecutors who spend their time trying to oust him? Let's hope so...
Diana October 03, 2013 at 06:17 PM
''Life is tough! It's even tougher when you're stupid.'' John Wayne - Republican
LAKE ELSINORE RESIDENT October 04, 2013 at 10:29 AM
We can't afford Malicious Mell. She has turned me off with her shady way from the get go. Would someone please tell us exactly how much the city has paid so far for Malicious Mels monument with the star of david and crosses? George Alongi was murdered and the case should be solved not turned into a cold case file. If Zellerbach was a D.A. working for the people he would have a grand jury investigating the RDA caper, the Weirdomar City antics and other questionable activities.

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