Officials Try to Stop Removal of Cross

Times Staff Writer

Two Republican congressman have put language in a budget bill passed by the House designed to prevent the removal of the cross atop Mt. Soledad, the object of 15 years of litigation between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But whether the move by Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Escondido) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) will prove successful may not be known until a hearing in coming weeks in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson.

ACLU attorney William McElroy, whose client is a military veteran and an atheist who opposes the cross remaining on public property, said Monday he doubted that Thompson would be influenced by the congressional move to designate the cross a national veterans memorial.


“It’s much ado about nothing,” McElroy said. “Whether the cross is on city land or federal land, the Constitution is the Constitution.”

The ACLU has long maintained that having the 43-foot cross on public property violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The city of San Diego has insisted that the cross is not primarily a religious symbol but a memorial to military veterans.

The Senate has not yet considered the budget bill, which passed the House on Saturday.

Cunningham, a decorated Navy fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, said the cross should remain atop Mt. Soledad as “a fitting tribute to our brave men and women who have served this great nation.”

In 1991, Thompson ruled that it was unconstitutional for the city to maintain the cross. He later approved the sale of the cross and the property beneath it to the Mt. Soledad Memorial Assn., a group formed by American Legion Post 275 in La Jolla.

But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the sale, saying it had been rigged in favor of groups promising to keep the cross on the hilltop, visible from Interstate 5. The cross was built in 1953 during the Korean War.

The Mt. Soledad Memorial Assn. and the ACLU have struck a tentative deal to have the cross moved to a nearby church, pending Thompson’s approval. But the plaques memorializing individual service members would be allowed to remain.


On Nov. 2, voters defeated a City Council-backed measure that would have authorized a second sale of the property in hopes of finding a buyer willing to let the cross remain on Mt. Soledad.

Bill Kellogg, president of the Mt. Soledad Memorial Assn., said he believed the budget language would not help the cross remain. “It would be wonderful if this saved the cross, but we’re not counting on it,” he said.

Kellogg said that he spoke earlier this year with Anthony Principi, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, about designating the cross as a national war memorial. He said VA lawyers concluded that such action would not change the federal court’s ruling that the cross must be removed.