Efforts to Save Mount Soledad Memorial Face Deadline

By Sarah Larkins | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Activists trying to protect the Mount Soledad veterans' memorial in San Diego, Calif., say the Fourth of July weekend would be the perfect time for President Bush to appeal to his conservative base by taking federal possession of the monument under eminent domain.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues that allowing the 29-foot-tall cross to remain in a public park is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

"If you've got 76 percent of the voters voting to save the cross, and you've got this groundswell of support from a lot of faith-based organizations ... it would make sense [to take action]," Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center told Cybercast News Service.

"Obviously the Fourth of July would be a great time to do it," added Thompson, whose firm represents the group "San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial."

The Mount Soledad cross was built in 1954 as a memorial to Korean War casualties and veterans. Since that time, the monument has expanded to add six granite walls featuring plaques of names and photos of veterans of the Korean and other wars.

The battle over the cross began in 1991 when Federal District Court Judge George Thompson ruled in favor of atheist Philip Paulson and ordered the city to remove the cross, citing the "no preference" clause of the California Constitution, which guarantees free exercise of religion without discrimination or preference.

In response, the city sold the land to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, but that sale was later ruled unconstitutional. The legal battle continued for more than a decade as further sales and other efforts to protect the monument were ruled unconstitutional, including a proposal to transfer the memorial to the federal government, which was supported by a 76 percent margin of voters in July 2005.

In May 2006, Judge Thompson told the city to comply with his 1991 order by removing the cross before Aug. 1 or face a $5,000-a-day fine.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents Paulson in his efforts to have the monument removed, argued that allowing the cross, and another like it on Mount Helix, to remain amounts to a governmental endorsement of religion.

"They are prominent features atop hillsides in publicly-owned parks," Linda Hills, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, told the San Diego Union Tribune in 1998. "Their Christian import is clear and has been acknowledged by the courts. Their maintenance by the City and County, respectively, is tantamount to a governmental endorsement of Christianity.

"Their presence places a burden on the enjoyment of the parks by non-Christians," Hills added.

But Thompson disagreed, saying that the cross has a meaning that transcends religion.

"It would be a devastating tragedy that we would not recognize the sacrifice of these veterans and their families by honoring that with a cross, which is a universal symbol of sacrifice," he said.

The Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals denied a request to stay Judge Thompson's decision, limiting the options for those working to protect the Mount Soledad cross. The law center filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to stay Judge Thompson's decision. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy will review that motion.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) also introduced the "Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial Protection Act," Monday evening. The bill would transfer possession of the memorial to the federal government. The U.S. Military already manages similar memorials, such as Arlington National Cemetery, which is maintained by the Department of the Army, Thompson said.

"Removing this long recognized and respected landmark is an insult to the men and women memorialized on its walls and the service and sacrifice of those who have worn a uniform in defense of our nation," Rep. Hunter said in a statement. "It is important that we exhaust every possible option for preserving this revered Memorial and ensuring its continued presence atop Mt. Soledad."

Thompson said the problem efforts to save the memorial are facing now is lack of time.

"The most effective way to save the cross before August 1 would be for the President to act," he said. "That is the most promising as far as keeping the cross there before the deadline."

Rep. Hunter and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders are also asking President Bush to intervene.

"Please use [your authority]...to begin immediate condemnation proceedings and bring this National Veterans' Memorial into the Federal Park System," Rep. Hunter wrote President Bush in May. "It would be a national travesty to have this veterans' memorial dismantled against the overwhelming majority of San Diego residents and federal legislative intent."

Thompson warned, however, that intervention by the executive branch does not guarantee that the battle will end.

"Even if the federal government takes over, that doesn't necessarily end the case, it just makes the previous litigation moot," he said. "If Paulson wants to start a new lawsuit challenging some aspect of the federal government taking over, he can certainly do that."

But Thompson added that, if Paulson and the ACLU of San Diego, which did not return calls seeking comment for this article, want to continue their attack on the monument, his group stands ready to defend it.

"We have made a pledge to fight this battle to the end," Thompson concluded, "and we are doing that."

Make media inquiries or request an interview regarding this article.

Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-brief.

E-mail a comment or news tip to Sarah Larkins.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.