Mayor Jerry Sanders and Congressman Duncan Hunter have written letters to President George Bush imploring him to intercede in the Mount Soledad cross controversy by initiating eminent domain proceedings to take the half-acre surrounding the cross and transfer it into the federal parks system.
Sanders held a press conference underneath the towering 30-foot cross May 11 to inform the public of this latest wrinkle in the 17-year battle to keep the historic Korean War memorial and centerpiece cross in place.
Describing the cross as something worth fighting for, Sanders pledged to continue the battle to preserve the landmark symbol, despite a recent court order requiring the city to remove the cross within three months or be fined a hefty $5,000 per day for failure to do so.
“I’ll do everything within my power to keep the Mount Soledad National War Memorial just as it is today,” said Sanders.
The president would have to condemn the site in the name of the good of the American people in order to claim it as a case for eminent domain.
Sanders added the city will continue to seek a stay to the judicial ruling ordering removal of the cross, simultaneously pursuing another appeal of Judge Gordon Thompson Jr.'s ruling that the cross must go.
James McElroy, attorney for the plaintiff in the case to remove the cross, said the city’s legal maneuvering doesn’t obscure the fact that the courts have, time and again, determined Latin crosses on public lands are an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.
“That whole issue misses the point,” McElroy said. “They’re trying to do this to accomplish something they can’t accomplish even if they do this. The city thinks that by making this land federal land, that’s going to change the law. They’re wrong on both counts. It’s unconstitutional. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s city or federal land.”
McElroy also strongly doubts the city will be successful in staying Judge Thompson’s order, or in appealing the case.
“In order to get a stay,” he said, “they have to establish you have a likelihood of prevailing. They’re never going to be able to establish that. It’s been an uphill battle for them.”
Legal experts have also warned that movements by the federal government to claim the land do not release the city from the judge’s order to remove the cross. The judge could find the city in contempt of court for ignoring the order, and could increase the fines taxpayers will have to shoulder.
In his letter to President Bush, Congressman Hunter said: “In order to protect the memorial for future generations, Congress passed and you signed into law a provision that designated the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial as a national veterans memorial. ... Please begin condemnation proceedings and bring this national veterans’ memorial into the federal park system.”
The American Legion, the nation’s largest veteran’s group with 2.7 million members, has joined with Sanders and Hunter to seek a federal solution to the Mount Soledad cross situation.
In a letter to President Bush, American Legion’s National Commander Thomas Bock wrote: “We are particularly concerned in this case that a dangerous precedent could be set that would endanger veterans’ memorials across America, perhaps even the 9,000 crosses marking the final resting place of World War II heroes at Normandy Beach.”
Sanders will be traveling to Washington, D.C., this week to address a number of legislative issues. High on the list will be the cross.
Sanders said the fight to keep the memorial centerpiece is more than a symbolic gesture.
“Some say this is about the cross,” he said. “I could not disagree more. This is not about just a Christian symbol. What this boils down to is preserving a nationally registered war memorial that is an integral part of San Diego’s history.”
The mayor also took issue with the notion that the cross must be brought down because it is a religious symbol.
“The courts have routinely approved secular monuments that have crosses as an element of the monument,” he said.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the appeal Tuesday, May 23, at 3 p.m. at City Hall in downtown San Diego, 202 C St.