Mt. Soledad cross and veterans memorial above San Diego (soledadmemorial.com)
Ruling on a 15-year-old ACLU case, a federal judge today ordered the city of San Diego to remove a mountain-top cross within 90 days or face a fine of $5,000 a day.
U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson said, “It is now time, and perhaps long overdue, for this court to enforce its initial permanent injunction forbidding the presence of the Mount Soledad cross on city property,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Thompson ruled in 1991 the Mount Soledad cross violates the so-called “separation of church and state” but the case has remained in courts and become an issue of public policy for more than a decade.
ACLU lawyer James McElroy believes San Diego officials finally will give up their fight.
“I don’t think the city has its heart in taking more action,” he said, according to the paper.
A city lawyer argued during the hour-long court hearing today that citizens had voted for transfer of the land under the cross.
Proposition A, passed by 75 percent in July, called for the city to donate the cross to the federal government as the centerpiece of a veterans memorial.
The ballot initiative came about after the city refused to donate the cross and memorial to the federal government. A group called San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial took just 23 days to gather 105,000 signatures.
In a ruling now on appeal, however, a Superior Court judge found the transfer unconstitutional.
The Union-Tribune said the group behind the public vote on transfer likely will appeal Thompson’s decision.
The 29-foot cross has stood on Mount Soledad as the center of a war memorial on city land since 1954. The first cross on the site was built in 1913.
A bill authorizing the federal government to take over the memorial was authored by Republican U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter and Randy Cunningham. President Bush signed the bill into law in December.
Responding to today’s ruling, Mayor Jerry Sanders said he would recommend the city council and city attorney take action to save the cross.
The battle began in 1989 when Phillip Paulsen, an atheist, filed suit, and a court ordered the city to remove the cross. 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.
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