The Mount Soledad Cross – 24 Years of Political Maneuvering
A lone cross has sat atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla, California since 1914. The current cross was constructed in 1954 by the Mt. Soledad Veterans Association and stands 29 feet high. At the center of a war memorial as a tribute to our soldiers, the cross is surrounded by walls covered with thousands of plaques. This one monument has likewise been surrounded by controversy for 24 years.
A self-proclaimed atheist files a law suit against the city of San Diego with the assistance of the ACLU. The plaintiff alleges that the City of San Diego is violating both the California and U.S. Constitutions by allowing the cross to stand on city property. The lawsuit contends that it is illegal to display a religious symbol on city property as it demonstrates preference for a specific religion, violating the Establishment Clause.
The federal district court rules in favor of the plaintiff in December 1991. The ninth circuit subsequently affirms this decision.
Attorney Chuck LiMandri, successfully lobbies three local congressmen to propose legislation in Washington for the transfer of the cross property to the federal government.
In December 2004, President Bush signs a law designating the Mt. Soledad cross a national memorial honoring veterans of the United States Armed Forces. The federal government will accept a donation of the memorial property by the city of San Diego.
Surprisingly, the city council decides not to donate the memorial to the federal government. Undeterred, a local grassroots group organizes a petition drive allowing the voters to overrule the city council through a proposition. It’s approved, which requires the city to donate the land to the federal government. The court issues a permanent injunction ordering removal of the cross.
Attorneys Charles LiMandri and Robert Muise file several unsuccessful motions with the 9th Circuit Court before reaching out to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justice Kennedy grants a stay of the district court’s injunction.
In August 2006, President Bush signs new federal legislation immediately taking possession of the memorial and land. A new law suit is filed by the ACLU in response, challenging the presence of the cross on federal property. The lawsuit is dismissed by the federal court. The 9th circuit later reverses that dismissal, stating that the cross violates the Establishment Clause.
In March 2012, the Department of Justice (defending the memorial as it is now on federal property) files a petition of review with the Supreme Court. In June 2012, the Supreme Court decides it is not willing to hear the case yet. Since the 9th circuit court has not said the cross has to be removed from the memorial, the Supreme Court sends it back to the Federal District Court to fashion an “appropriate remedy”.
The two sides continue to debate the appropriate remedy. The ACLU will want to move it. Our side simply wants to add more secular components like plaques, flags, signs to reinforce that the cross is not intended as a religious monument but as a traditional symbol meant to honor the men and women who serve our country. Negotiations continue between the Department of Justice, the ACLU and the Mt. Soledad Veterans Association.
The yet unidentified modification of the memorial will likely have an effect on cases involving memorials all over the country. For hundreds of years, crosses have been seen as an appropriate symbol of the sacrifice someone gave for their country, regardless of their religious beliefs. Many of them have either religious symbols, text, or some type of religious reference on them in every state in the union, and they are all going to be subjected to similar litigation. Other symbols at risk include displays of the 10 Commandments in public buildings and Nativity scenes or Jewish Hannukah scenes in the public streets, retail stores, or any other public gatherings.
A vocal minority of our citizenry, with the support of organizations such as the ACLU and an empathetic media, can endanger public tributes of historical figures or events, as one atheist proved when endangering the Mount Soledad Cross, which has been a part of the San Diego community and its landscape for 100 years. Unless the majority of Americans begin to question whether this is acceptable and takes action, such lawsuits and repercussions will continue. These ongoing challenges and legal judgments will have a profound long term effect on religious freedom.