Philip Paulson, 59; atheist, Vietnam veteran fought to have hilltop cross removed

Times Staff Writer

Philip Paulson, the Vietnam combat veteran and atheist who has been the plaintiff in a 17-year court battle to have a tall cross removed from city property atop Mt. Soledad, died Wednesday of cancer. He was 59.

Paulson sued City Hall to have the cross removed, saying it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The case has yet to be decided, with issues pending before appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paulson, grandson of a Lutheran minister, concluded after his military service that he no longer believed in God. He sued the city out of a belief that it was improper for a religious symbol to be displayed so prominently on government property.

The issue has been one of the most explosive in San Diego history, with Paulson and his attorney, James McElroy, often reviled as anti-Christian and anti-veteran. As the case has proceeded through the courts, city officials have asserted that the cross is a war memorial, not a religious symbol.


Born and raised in Wisconsin, Paulson served two tours with the Army in Vietnam. He attended the University of Wisconsin and moved to San Diego in the 1970s. He taught computer and business classes at National University.

“This was a guy who walked point in Vietnam and had seen a lot of dead bodies,” McElroy said. “He didn’t scare. Whenever he would receive a death threat, which have been common over these 17 years, he’d just make a joke out of it.”

Freelance writer Keith Taylor, who is working on a biography of Paulson, said the veteran told him that after a bloody battle in Vietnam he looked skyward and cursed God. “He was just completely disenchanted,” Taylor said.

Although he avoided media attention, Paulson was known to dominate any room he entered. He was 6 feet 5 and bald, had a booming laugh and enjoyed debating social and political issues such as freedom of speech and abortion rights from a liberal political perspective.

“He was a big guy who believed passionately in the important issues of the day,” McElroy said.

When Paulson’s illness was diagnosed as terminal, other plaintiffs joined the lawsuit. He is survived by five siblings.