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Soledad battle continues

The fate of Mt. Soledad’s cross was back in court, and back on center stage, again last week.

It’s been 19 years since the constitutionality of the Korean War memorial cross on public land atop Mt. Soledad was first challenged.

Philip Paulson, the Vietnam War veteran and avowed atheist who initially challenged the cross’ mountaintop presence, has died of cancer.

But, with a fresh infusion of litigants, the battle over the iconic cross continues.

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Instead of the late Paulson, it is now the national Jewish War Veterans and the ACLU of San Diego who are challenging the constitutionality of a cross on public land. And instead of the city of San Diego defending the local landmark, it is now the federal government attempting to fend off legal maneuvers to have the mountaintop cross moved to private property.

The U.S. government has operated the property since a federal bill signed by President Bush transferred the cross site from the city to the U.S. Department of Defense. That move came after the city of San Diego had run out of legal options in defending the cross.

Last week’s court action, which was not a trial but a hearing on several legal motions, was before U.S. District Court Judge Larry A. Burns.

Charles Berwanger, representing the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, the La Jolla veterans group that built the cross, said this latest battle in the legal war revolves around the transfer, two years ago, of the half-acre site underneath the landmark from the ownership and control of the city of San Diego to the federal government. “The plaintiffs in the case are challenging the statute that transferred the cross,” said Berwanger, they are “also challenging the validity of the cross being on federal property. The plaintiffs challenged the statute arguing the cross should be removed. The U.S. defender argued it is entirely proper for the cross to be on federal property. The judge took the matter on submission.”

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James McElroy, the plaintiff’s attorney, said, though the players involved this time around are different, the issues in the lawsuit remain the same. “The federal government made a Herculean effort to save this cross, which gives preference to one religion over all the others,” said McElroy, who pointed out, a few years ago, that an agreement had been hammered out between the parties that would have moved the Soledad cross to private property on a nearby church site 1,000 yards distant from the cross’ present location. “Someone suggested we ought to just get up (in court) and say, “It’s a 40-foot, 20-ton cross, and sit down.”

He said “that kind of says it all, it’s so obviously a symbol of one religion. We’re not talking about small crosses on grave markers. It’s an enormous (religious) symbol on one of the preeminent pieces of public land in the city of San Diego.”

Berwanger and McElroy both agreed that the judge’s decision on last week’s motions is likely to come sometime in the next several weeks. Both also agreed that, whichever way the decision goes, it is going to be appealed by the losing side and the 19-year battle will continue.