A former Navy fighter pilot is battling a compromise legal settlement with the ACLU that would remove a giant, mountaintop cross honoring war veterans.
Mt. Soledad cross and veterans memorial above San Diego (soledadmemorial.com)
To settle the 15-year-old lawsuit, the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association made a private agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union to remove the 43-foot cross that has stood atop Mt. Soledad in San Diego for 50 years.
The Thomas More Law Center has filed a brief in federal court on behalf of the pilot, John F. Steel, and other veterans suing to block the agreement.
“I am shocked by the Memorial Association’s surrender to the ACLU and the forces of atheism that are embarked on a campaign to remove every vestige of religion from the public square,” said Richard Thompson, chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center.
On its website, the Association says it “believes the proposed resale strategy will put the cross, and possibly even the Veterans Memorial Walls, at risk. On the other hand, the Settlement Agreement has a strong chance of ending the litigation and preserving the cross by relocating it to private property.”
The Association says it wants to move the cross to the Mt. Soledad Presbyterian Church, about 1,000 yards south of its current location.
The battle began in 1989 when Phillip Paulsen, an atheist, filed suit, and a court ordered the city to remove the cross. San Diego responded by placing the property up for sale, with the approval of 76 percent of voters. But the subsequent sale was ruled unconstitutional after Paulsen objected, arguing the sale had the effect of preserving the cross.
Paulsen argues that the cross is a violation of the First Amendment’s ban on government establisment of a religion
In 1998, the city sold the property to the Mt. Soledad War Memorial Association, which again was challenged in court. The sale originally was upheld but later ruled unconstitutional by the full panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and remanded back to district court to work out a remedy.
During its brief period of ownership, the Memorial Association made significant improvements, including extensive landscaping and the addition of more than 3,000 plaques honoring military veterans.
The court now is faced with the issue of who owns the land.
The Thomas More Law Center’s brief argues that a “determination that the city still has title to the land should completely remove any power of the Association to remove the cross.”
The cross was erected in 1954 and today honors veterans of World War I and II and the Korean War.
“The long and complicated struggle to remove the cross now involves hundreds of donors and owners of plaques purchased to honor our nation’s veterans,” said Charles S. LiMandri, West Coast regional director of the Law Center.
“These individuals were promised that the cross would stay as a part of the memorial atop Mt. Soledad,” he continued. “It is a sad day when we are faced with the prospect of withholding a promise made to those who wish to honor our nation’s veterans, and instead surrender to the demands of a hypersensitive atheist who is set on destroying one of San Diego’s most treasured landmarks.”
The Memorial Association privately agreed to to remove the cross under the threat of legal fees.
The Law Center’s brief argues that if the Memorial Association is considered the rightful owner of the property, the cross would no longer violate the Constitution because it is a private entity.
Moreover, the group says, the Association would not be permitted to remove the cross without violating the rights of the owners and donors of plaques who were promised the cross would stay.
If the land is returned to the city of San Diego as expected, the Law Center says, a new hearing must be held on the matter because the Association has made extensive improvements to the property, thereby incorporating the cross into a war memorial.
The Law Center says a new hearing would determine whether the changed circumstances no longer create a constitutional violation in the form of the government’s endorsement of a religion.