Fate of Soledad cross may be decided by the voters


The Mount Soledad Memorial Association is getting a sense of deja vu, and it’s an unpleasant feeling.

The La Jolla non-profit veterans group is balking at City Attorney Casey Gwinn’s recent recommendation to embark on a new public vote to decide the future of the 50-year-old concrete cross on Mount Soledad. If the ballot measure passes, a new, high-bid process to find a private property owner will determine whether the cross stays or goes.

“It seems a bit futile to us, because you’ll end up going through the process we went through before,” said memorial association president Bill Kellogg. “The other side has looked at the proposal the city is advancing, and said they feel it’s just as unconstitutional ... are almost certain to challenge that in court, and, ultimately, it will go right back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which ruled against the city. We don’t see a different result will ultimately occur.”

Twice before, the city sold the cross site to the highest bidder, which turned out to be the Mount Soledad Memorial Association. But, the Ninth Circuit Court rescinded that sale, arguing the bid process was unfair because those who want to remove the giant religious symbol in the center would be forced to pay the cost of relocating it.

Cross detractors argue it’s unconstitutional to have a religious symbol on public land. The veterans group contends the cross is a memorial symbol, not a religious icon.

Paradoxically, it’s now the veterans association, tired from the costly 15-year struggle to keep the cross in place, who are pressing to have it removed. And they think they’ve lined up an alternative site to relocate it.

“It appears Mount Soledad Presbyterian Church would be an ideal location for it,” said Kellogg.

Kellogg added moving the landmark cross would be a difficult and costly process that he characterized as nonetheless doable. Contractors have estimated it would cost $40,000 to $80,000 to move the cross. Such an undertaking would likely take three to six months to complete.

Who would pay for the cross’s relocation?

“At this point, it’s a hardship not to do it,” said Kellogg. “I think we have the capability of raising funds to get that done. We’ve got a major capital campaign under way.”

Kellogg said the association can’t finish improvements at the memorial site while the fate of the cross hangs in the balance.

“As long as a lawsuit is active against the cross,” he said, “people are not particularly keen to contribute to the cause, because they don’t know even if the memorial walls are going to stay in place.”

The veterans group has been selling plaques inlaid in walls surrounding the cross memorializing veterans. Once the cross is moved, Kellogg’s group plans to replace it with something more appropriate.

“Our thought is we would be able to then put a new, world-class monument on top of the steps that would commemorate veterans from all wars living and dead and all branches of the service.”

Kellogg would not speculate on the exact form a replacement monument might take. But, he suggested it could be something like the classic Iwo Jima World War II flag-raising statue. Or, he said, it could be something like an obelisk patterned after the Washington Monument, or perhaps something with a pentagon shape.

City Attorney Gwinn defended a proposed third rebid of the Mount Soledad cross site.

“Plaintiff Philip Paulson, the American Civil Liberties Union or the Ninth Circuit should not decide the future of this historic war memorial,” he said. “The voters and taxpayers of San Diego have a right to weigh in on the future of this cross. That is why I am recommending a new public vote and then, if the vote passes, a new public sale. Whether the cross comes or goes should be decided by a private property owner, not by the city.”

If the City Council adopts Gwinn’s recommendation, a proposition authorizing a new sale of the Mount Soledad property will be placed on the November ballot. It will require approval by two-thirds of the voters in the November 2004 election.

The City Council is scheduled to discuss City Attorney Casey Gwinn’s recommendation to rebid the Mount Soledad cross site at a Tuesday, July 20, public hearing in Council Chambers in downtown San Diego.