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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.

[Photo Of The Cross] 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 weekend.

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  /  noelle@acm.org [--------------------------------------]

 


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