SAN DIEGO — Supporters of a war memorial cross deemed unconstitutional last year by a federal court rallied at the landmark Thursday as they prepared to ask the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, amid a growing effort nationwide over the use of religious symbols to honor fallen troops.
A nonprofit legal firm, Liberty Institute in Dallas, filed a petition Thursday on behalf of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association to preserve the 43-foot-high monument on federal land atop the picturesque San Diego peak overlooking the Pacific Ocean in suburban La Jolla.
The gathering by 75 supporters of the cross also drew about three-dozen people who want it taken down.
The supporters told the opponents that the cross isn't about religion, but about honoring service members. The memorial's plaques have names and stories of about 3,000 who served in conflicts from World War I to Iraq.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Jack Harkins said people come to Mount Soledad from across the country to reflect and remember those who fought for the values of the American people.
"Let future generations enjoy their right to that experience," he said. "Let this monument stand."
One of the opponents, Bruce Gleason, said it would be "grand" if the memorial included a 40-foot Star of David as well as Wiccan and atheist symbols.
"This cross is unconstitutional in a multitude of courts and every time that happens they've upped the ante," said Mr. Gleason, founder of the Backyard Skeptics of Villa Park.
The Supreme Court has signaled a greater willingness to allow religious symbols on public land, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last month that writes into law the propriety of displaying such markers at war memorials.
Last year's ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals capped two decades of legal challenges over the 1954 cross that became a memorial to Korean War veterans.
A number of other military memorials on public land across the country have been challenged in recent years by civil liberty activists and atheists who say the markers violate the separation between church and state. The Supreme Court in 2010 refused to order the removal of a congressionally endorsed war memorial cross from its longtime home atop a remote rocky outcropping in California's Mojave Desert.
But Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, said he is not relying on the courts. He introduced the bill passed by the House in January that would codify the existing practice of allowing religious symbols at military monuments established or acquired by the federal government.