Easter Sunrise Greeted By Separationists
by David C. Noelle
Northwest of downtown San Diego, California, looms Mount Soledad - an expansive hill
which rewards the climber with a panoramic view of the Northern reaches of the city. To
the North lay the beautiful beaches of La Jolla and the blue Pacific. To the South may be
seen the glittering skyscrapers of the city, the waterways of the San Diego bay, and the
huge arching bridge to Coronado. The Eastern view reveals lush green canyons and mountains
in the distance. Atop Mount Soledad is a public park, making this wondrous vista available
to every citizen ... every Christian citizen, anyway.
In the middle of the park stands a huge, white, Latin cross, visible from the beaches and
canyons below. The location of this cross has been a gathering place for Easter worship
services for over 70 years. The cross itself was constructed and dedicated with Easter
sunrise events in mind. Despite its clearly Christian nature and purpose, this monument
has been supported on public land by city funds for decades.
Several years ago, this clear violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause
was challenged in the courts by two brave San Diego citizens. Howard Kreisner of the
Atheist Coalition and Philip Paulson of the Humanist Association of San Diego both sued
the city over the cross. With legal help from Dr. Peter Irons, a Constitutional lawyer who
also teaches political science at the University of California, San Diego, the two
plaintiffs managed to convince the court that the cross must be removed from public land.
The city appealed this decision, and the appeals court reiterated the need to remove the
cross. The Supreme Court refused to hear the city's subsequent appeal.
Ignoring the court's order, the City of San Diego sold a tiny plot of land around the
cross to a private organization, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, for a
ridiculously small sum. This blatant attempt to avoid the judgement of the court is
currently being challenged, with the next hearing scheduled for early May.
Last February, in the midst of this legal battle, Dr. Irons visited the local parks
department to see if the Mount Soledad Memorial Association had acquired a permit to use
the park this Easter. To his surprise, he discovered that no permit had been requested,
and, indeed, such a permit had not been issued to the Memorial Association to conduct
their Christian worship services for years. It was simply assumed by the city
that the park would be reserved for these services. Seizing a rare opportunity, Dr. Irons
immediately made application for use of the park on Easter morning. In the
"organization" blank of the application, Dr. Irons listed the Atheist Coalition,
despite the fact that he does not consider himself an atheist. Several weeks
later, the Atheist Coalition membership voted nearly unanimously to support Dr. Irons'
Easter morning event. This support was offered even though many members of the Coalition
had already made plans to attend a national atheists convention in the Midwest on that
Under the guidance of Dr. Irons and activist Craig Kelso, the theme for the Easter
morning event became "The Park Belongs to Everyone". A program of speakers was
assembled from San Diego's diverse religious and non-religious minority groups. The
message went out that this secular celebration was to welcome all citizens,
without concern for convictions or beliefs. This open invitation did not appeal to the
local media, which chose instead to cast this gathering as a battle between atheists and
Christians. The local newspapers contained frequent stories and editorials on the
usurpation of this sacred ground by the childish and mean spirited atheists. The San Diego
Memorial Association refused to join in the celebration, opting to reserve the park for
Memorial Day, instead. One San Diego City Councilman, who also happens to be a Baptist
preacher, reserved the park for the hour preceding the Atheist Coalition Easter
event, but front page headlines soon thereafter declared that God himself had told this
distinguished gentleman to withdraw his reservation.
Many people climbed Mount Soledad on the morning of April 7th. With sleep still in
their eyes from the reinstantiation of daylight savings time, people were forced by
limited parking space to climb to the top of the hill on foot. Arriving in darkness,
members of the "The Park Belongs to Everyone" committee quitely set up for their
event while television cameras captured the wild circus of street preachers and angry
Christian banner wavers which pranced about the cross. As the sun crept above the
mountains, the celebration of freedom and diversity began.
Dr. Irons and Craig Kelso welcomed the crowd, which numbered between 200 and 300. The
sound of their voices over the P.A. system was heard by the demonstrators at the nearby
cross, and a parade of banner toting crusaders marched towards the podium. The motley crew
of anti-separationists included several bible thumpers shouting hallelujahs, a mock Jesus
bearing a large wooden cross and receiving flogging by a woman wearing bunny-rabbit
make-up, and a collection of young muscular men wearing clothing reminiscent of inner city
street gangs, chanting "It's the blood that sets me free".
The disruption was significant, but the separationists went on. Scott Nailor, speaking
on behalf of the Atheist Coalition, shouted out his piece, ignoring the drone of the
protesters behind him. Television cameras ignored his words and focused instead on any
interaction that showed promise of escalating into violence. Brave freethinkers and other
separationists stepped forward to quietly interpose their bodies between the protesters
and the speakers. Then, as if out of nowhere, several uniformed officers of the San Diego
Police Department appeared and calmly enforced the park permit granted to Dr. Irons. The
Christian protesters were directed to keep their distance, and their shouts and chants
slowly died down to an occasional heckling.
JoAnne Harrison, speaking for the local wiccans, related the pagan history of Easter.
She was followed by the Reverend Tom Owen-Towle of the First Unitarian Universalist
Church. A musical interlude was then provided by Vincent Clarke, an amiable elderly
trombonist who had played in years past for the Christian services held on Mount Soledad.
On this occasion, Mr. Clarke entertained the crowd with a selection of secular show tunes.
The crowd joined in, clapping and singing along.
After the music, Alan Mandelberg of the Humanist Fellowship of San Diego approached the
podium and called attention to the trend towards secularization in our world, praising the
democratic principles which allowed diversity of opinion to thrive. Speaking for the San
Diego Association of Secular Humanists, David Noelle answered some of
the anti-separationist attacks which had appeared in the press. The Reverend Dr. Dusty
Pruitt, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church (a Christian church appealing to the
gay and lesbian population of San Diego), spoke next. She reviled the Christian
protesters, offering a view of Christianity consistent with First Amendment concerns.
Finally, Dr. Peter Irons addressed the crowd. He reviewed the history of the recent
cross litigation and called upon the city government to recognize the diversity of its
constituency. He bemoaned the way in which the media had focused on and hoped for
confrontation and conflict at this event, and he rejoiced in how peaceful and civil this
diverse Easter morning gathering had been. He extended warm words of gratitude to the
supportive crowd and also to the Christian protesters who had actually stayed to hear all
of the speakers.
After taking in a final scan of the breath-taking view, the crowd descended. There was
no way to predict how the press would report this event, or how the courts would respond
to it. Still, one thing was sure. The religious and non-religious minorities of San Diego
had stood together and insisted that their city grant them - all of them - their
full rights under the law.
David Noelle / email@example.com