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
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.