Bush saves cross by eminent domain
President Bush on Aug. 14 signed a bill transferring ownership by eminent domain of a 29-foot cross overlooking San Diego from the city to the federal government.
The signing rendered moot two lawsuits seeking to remove the Mount Soledad Cross, a fixture on the city’s skyline since its installation on Easter 1954, as a Korean War memorial.
The Justice Department will head up efforts to retain the Mount Soledad Cross and the surrounding 170 acres as a military war memorial.
“This is an attempted end run on the U.S. Constitution,” said Fred Edwords, director of communications for the American Humanist Association. “That the federal government would intervene in a purely local churchstate dispute is an example of election-year politics at its worst.”
Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a law firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., that fought on behalf of the monument, called the Oval Office signing “a line in the sand.”
“It’s the culmination of a 17year battle that the atheists backed by the American Civil Liberties Union have been fighting,” he said, referring to a lawsuit filed against the city by atheist Philip Paulson.
Mr. Paulson, a Vietnam veteran, says the monument discriminates against non-Christian veterans.
Ordered in 1991 by U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. to remove the cross, the city tried for years to offload the memorial. Last year, 76 percent of San Diego voters approved Proposition A, which would have allowed the cross to be donated to the federal government.
However, Superior Court Judge Patricia Yim Cowett invalidated the election, saying the proposition violated the state constitution by preferring a religious symbol. Her ruling was appealed to California’s 4th District Court of Appeal.
On May 3, Judge Thompson ordered the city to move the cross by Aug. 1 or be fined $5,000 a day.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy blocked that order on July 3 and indicated in a four-page opinion that at least four justices — the minimum required — would hear the case if it reached their level.
Meanwhile, Congress had drafted a bill to transfer the cross to the federal government, rendering the lawsuits moot. The House passed the bill by a 349-74 vote on July 19 and the Senate approved it unanimously Aug. 1.
Reps. Duncan Hunter, Brian P. Bilbray and Darrell Issa, the San Diego-area Republicans who coauthored the legislation in June, attended the bill signing.
The Department of Defense, which will oversee the monument, must reimburse the city for the property, amove criticized by the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“The president and Congress have no business intervening in this way in an ongoing legal proceeding,” he said. “Today’s action is an unwarranted, heavy-handed maneuver that undercuts the separation of church and state and the integrity of the judicial system.”
The cross at Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial overlooking San Diego has been transferred to federal ownership in a move that nullifies a court order to remove it.