The Latin cross at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial. / Photo by Thomas Melville
La Jolla military veterans, who recently bought the half-acre parcel containing the controversial, towering Mount Soledad cross for $1.4 million from the Department of Defense, say that ends the 25-year legal battle over whether a religious symbol belongs on public land.
But James McElroy, an attorney who represented the late Vietnam War veteran Phillip Paulson, and now the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who took his place, both of whom insisted the cross must come down, isn’t so sure.
“I’m confident that the lawsuit that began in 1989, Paulson vs. city of San Diego, will, in the very near future, be over and the lawsuit dismissed,” said Bruce Bailey, president/CEO of the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association board of trustees. “This is because the (land) transfer that occurred this time is different than in the past. This time, the property was transferred to the association, for fair-market value, and if, for some reason, the property doesn’t remain as a memorial, it will revert back immediately to the U.S. government, and they will retain it as a memorial.”
Noting this most recent Soledad property sale “might be a step in the right direction,” McElroy nonetheless added that it also might not be. “We have not yet had time to sit and go through the details of the (sale) agreement,” said McElroy, adding, “the devil’s in the details.”
“We really need to look closely at the terms of the deal, to see whether (with the sale) there has been a level playing field where preference was not shown for one religion over another,” concluded McElroy.
The legality of the Soledad cross has been in question since 1989, when U.S. Army Vietnam War combat veteran Philip Paulson, an atheist, became the lead plaintiff in a series of lawsuits seeking to remove the cross from the mountaintop, arguing its presence constitutes an illegal public endorsement of one religion over others.
Paulson died of cancer in 2006, but the legal battle has continued with the ACLU taking his place. The controversial case remains active a quarter-century later.
The U.S. Supreme Court has twice denied hearing arguments for and against the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial cross being an endorsement of religion. The high court remanded the matter back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit previously ruled the cross violates the constitutional separation of church and state and must be removed. That case is still pending.
In conjunction with the American Foreign Legion Post 275, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association (MSMA) established the memorial in 1954 with the building of a 27-foot Latin cross. The original memorial honored Korean War veterans.
In 2000, the association expanded the memorial installing six curved walls, which have since been outfitted with black granite plaques paying tribute to individual veterans both alive and deceased.
An additional five walls were added in 2013 to form a complete circle at the apex of Soledad Natural Park. There are presently more than 3,700 individual plaques adorning the memorial walls honoring veterans from the Revolutionary War to the present.
Owning the Soledad Cross property once again is a “huge step forward to us becoming known as a national monument, not just a regional monument,” said Bailey, adding, “That’s our vision.”
McElroy wasn’t concerned about the $1.4 million sale price of the Soledad cross property, which he said, “seems like a reasonable amount.
“I’m more concerned about whether the government has retained some discretionary interest, whether they have transferred the cross cleanly,” McElroy said. “But if, on the other hand, this is a sham sale intended merely to save the cross, and the government has demonstrated, once again, it’s preference for one religion over all the other religions: then we may have a problem with that.”