Bilbray, Hunter call for defense of Mount Soledad cross

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Everett S. 'Judge' Penick is seen at the Veterans' Day ceremony at Mount Soledad on Nov. 6, 2010. He died 11 days later.  Photo: Jerod Haris
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Everett S. 'Judge' Penick is seen at the Veterans' Day ceremony at Mount Soledad on Nov. 6, 2010. He died 11 days later. Photo: Jerod Haris

By City News Service

The Mount Soledad memorial, including its 43-foot cross, should be vigorously defended, two San Diego-area congressmen said in letters sent Thursday to Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The cross, which was constructed on public land in 1952 as part of a war memorial, has been at the center of a decades-long legal battle over whether it is unconstitutional.

The federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the cross was unconstitutional, although it did not need to be removed.

Reps. Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad, and Duncan D. Hunter, R-El Cajon, wrote that the memorial was originally built to honor veterans of the Korean War.

"In reaching its decision, the ninth circuit panel overturned a previous ruling identifying the memorial as a secular symbol of military service and sacrifice," Bilbray and Hunter wrote. "In recognition of the long history of the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial and its undeniable existence as a war memorial, it is imperative the departments of Justice and Defense take

immediate action to protect this revered landmark."

The Defense Department owns the memorial and has a duty to protect it, while the Justice Department is supposed to defend the government's interests, the congressmen wrote.

No specific actions were suggested.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a 2008 decision by U.S. District Judge Larry Burns, who ruled in a lawsuit brought by Jewish veterans that the cross is part of a larger war memorial honoring all veterans and serves as a secular symbol of service.

Justice M. Margaret McKeown, who penned the 50-page ruling, said the way the Mount Soledad Memorial is currently configured "primarily conveys amessage of government endorsement of religion that violates the Establishment Clause. This result does not mean that the memorial could not be modified to pass constitutional muster, nor does it mean that no cross can be part of this veterans' memorial."

The Mount Soledad Memorial has been the subject of ongoing litigation for the last two decades.

In 1989, two Vietnam veterans sued the city of San Diego, seeking to enjoin it from allowing the cross to remain on city land.

The land the cross sits on has been under the control of the federal government since 2006, when Congress passed a law allowing seizure of the land for use as a war memorial.

   
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