Cross this lawsuit off the list, Mt. Soledad icon to stay
The 27-foot cross, built as a Korean War memorial in 1954, will stay on Mt. Soledad. / Photo by Thomas Melville
The back-and-forth battle over the legitimacy of a towering cross on Mount Soledad in La Jolla is finally over after a 25-year court fight.
The 27-foot cross, built as a Korean War memorial in 1954, will remain as it is, where it is.
An agreement has been reached to allow the sale of the cross, along with its surrounding memorial granite plaque walls, from the U.S. Department of Defense to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association Inc. The La Jolla veterans group bought the half-acre parcel containing the controversial Mount Soledad cross from the Department of Defense about a year ago.
James McElroy, the attorney who represented the late Vietnam War veteran Phillip Paulson who originally challenged the cross, and then the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who took Paulson's place, is convinced the cross' sale this time is legit.
So is all said and done?
“I think this is it,” concluded McElroy, adding, “We won at the Ninth Circuit Court. Faced with a court order to come up with another solution other than removing the cross, the U.S, government finally put together something that was palatable to us, that caused the transfer of the cross to a private entity.”
The cross has been sold to the Soledad vets previously, but the courts invalidated that sale ruling it wasn't appropriate.
“Previously, the city tried to give this property to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, and I challenged it because it was an unconstitutional government transfer of the property," said McElroy. "It wasn't a level playing field. It wasn't fair market value for the property. It was a sham sale.”
But McElroy described the most recent sale as “a constitutionally acceptable remedy.”
“They sold it to the vets for $1.4 million, which I think is in the ballpark of a reasonable value, given that it's just a little postage stamp lot under the cross itself and it can only be used for parkland,” he said.
MSMA president Lou Scanlon concluded all conditions for the Soledad cross' legal sale have been met.
“The government required that it be transferred at fair value, and there is a restriction that it must be maintained in perpetuity as a veteran's memorial,” he said. “So we can't put anything else up there.”
News that the opposition was willing to drop its case against the cross after its most recent sale was welcomed by vets.
“It's a relief to be able to operate the memorial now without the cloud of litigation that has hung over us and our operations for the last 25 years,” Scanlon said, adding MSMA is now embarking on “a major fundraising campaign to replenish the money that was spent on the cross.”
The legality of the Soledad cross has been in question since 1989, when U.S. Army 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 constituted an illegal public endorsement of one religion over others.
Paulson died of cancer in 2006, but the legal battle continued with the ACLU replacing him.
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.
In 2000, the association expanded the memorial installing six curved walls, which have since been outfitted with black granite plaques.
Was the quarter-century pitched battle over the Soledad cross worth it?
“It's always worth it to stand up for principles that improve people's everyday lives,” answered McElroy arguing, “It's obvious that cross is a huge religious symbol. My client (Paulson) was right.”
Why did it take so long to resolve the issues surrounding the Mount Soledad cross?
“Politics got involved, and were involved the entire way,” concluded McElroy.
McElroy joked that the court battle over the Mount Soledad cross went on so long that he feared “they might have to bury my ashes up there.”