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Former UCSD professor challenges cross in new book

A former UCSD professor who was among the first people to challenge the presence of the Mount Soledad cross on public land has written a book that not only acknowledges his opposition, it gives them space to make their case.

Peter Irons retired from teaching at UCSD in 2004. His eleventh book will be released next week and is titled, “God on Trial: Dispatches from America’s Religious Battlefields.” In it, Irons analyzes six cases where he believes the separation of church and state has been weakened through the presence of religious symbols on public property.

The oldest such case is the Mount Soledad cross. Irons also takes a look at a challenge to the recital of prayers before high school football games in Santa Fe, Texas, lawsuits filed in 1999 against the display of the Ten Commandments in the courthouses of two rural Kentucky counties and on the grounds of the state capital in Austin, Texas, a challenge of the words “under God” in the daily Pledge of Allegiance at a first-grade class in Elk Grove, Calif., and a 2004 case in which 11 parents challenged a school board’s decision in Dover, Penn., to require the reading in high-school biology classes of a statement supporting “intelligent design” as an alternative to the Darwinian theory of evolution.

A Harvard Law School graduate whose interest in constitutional law began when he was imprisoned in the 1960s for violating the federal draft law, Irons’ opinion in each case is that the presence of these religious symbols in the public domain can not be defended legally.

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“Not in my mind,” Irons said.

But Irons’ book gives voice to those who disagree with him. At the end of each chapter dealing with the specific cases, guest writers provide a point-counterpoint perspective. At the end of the chapter on Mount Soledad, a 10-page essay by Philip Paulson, who originally sued to have the cross moved, is followed by an essay of equal length by Phil Thalheimer, who today leads a coalition fighting to keep the cross in place.

“I’ve written a lot of books earlier in which I presented the voices of people who were involved on one side of these cases, and they were generally people whose views I agreed with,” Irons said. “I thought it would be interesting to talk to people on both sides this time.”

Irons believed that Thalheimer and the other voices of opposition in the book would add a dimension beyond the legal aspects of the cases.

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“I thought that presenting his point of view would help to explain how people come to such opposite points of view on these cases,” Irons said.

Irons himself was raised a Unitarian, attended Sunday School throughout his childhood and considered becoming a Unitarian minister. His beliefs evolved as he grew into adulthood, and he said he now considers himself “an atheist with a very strong spiritual interest.”

“That may seem contradictory, but I don’t think it is,” he said. “I would call myself a believer in Christian ethics but not Christian theology.”

He wrote the book to outline what he sees as a weakening of the separation of church and state in the United States. The United States has always been a religious and predominantly Christian nation, Irons said, but prior to the 1980s the religious right was not a political force. The emergence of that force and recent changes in the composition of the United States Supreme Court have resulted in a conflict between legal precedent and public opinion, Irons said.

“The court really has trouble deciding these cases,” he said. "(Supreme Court) Justices can choose one side or the other, and there is no clear dividing line.”

The Supreme Court is where Irons expects the Soledad case to end up. He thinks the recent transfer of the memorial to the federal government will be ruled unconstitutional, a decision that will be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who will then make a decision that will be appealed either way. The next step would be the Supreme Court, which, as Irons said, could go either way.

“That may take two or three years (to reach the Supreme Court), and by that time there may be more changes on the court,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to predict out that far.”

“God on Trial: Dispatches from America’s Religious Battlefields,” will be available at major bookstores May 17.

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