August 14, 2006

Bush signs bill transferring Mount Soledad cross to federal control

By Dana Wilkie

White House photo
President Bush prepares to sign the bill transferring the Mount Soledad cross to federal control Monday. Behind Bush were, from left, Bill Kellogg; Phil Thalheimer; San Diego Congressmen Brian Bilbray, Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter; and Chuck LiMandri.

WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday signed into law a plan to transfer San Diego's Mount Soledad cross to federal control in an effort to avoid its court-ordered removal.

In an Oval office ceremony, the Republican president signed a bill by three San Diego-area congressmen that immediately transfers the memorial land to the U.S. Defense Department in an effort to avoid a court-ordered removal of the cross that has towered over La Jolla on-and-off for nearly a century.

He was flanked by cross supporters from San Diego and the bill's chief architect, GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon.

“The president was pleased to sign this important piece of legislation into law,” said spokesman Peter Watkins:

“Today is a great day for America's veterans and the San Diego community,” said Hunter, whose bill passed the House last month with a 349-74 vote and passed the Senate unanimously two weeks later.

“The president's endorsement of this legislation validates years of tireless work and sends a clear message that America appreciates and respects its military men and women.”

James McElroy, the attorney for an atheist who first sued to remove the cross 17 years ago, said he petitioned the federal district court in San Diego last Thursday to void Congress' transfer.

“It's unfortunate that this is what our politicians do instead of respecting our constitution and the fact that we've had 17 years of decisions that have all come out the same way,” said McElroy, whose client won a ruling from a federal judge to remove the 29-foot cross by Aug. 1, an order the U.S. Supreme Court has put on hold.

The bill's final approval may mark a new era in the long-running parochial battle over the cross. Not only will the cross' future likely rest on interpretations of the federal Constitution instead of California's, it could become a national cause for supporters and opponents of religious symbols on public property.

“The president and Congress have no business intervening in this way in an ongoing legal proceeding,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Today's action is an unwarranted, heavy-handed maneuver that undercuts the separation of church and state and the integrity of the judicial system.”

About 35 people were milling around the cross and memorial as the legislation was being signed.

Sue Bourne, 53, a Catholic school teacher's aide from San Diego was visiting the cross with her mother Betty. She said it was wonderful that the president had signed the bill and that she was tired of the ongoing fight.

“We vote for things to become law and then we have people that fight it,” she said. “If they don't want to look at the cross then don't come up here.”

She said she hopes the legislation would put an end to the fighting.

“How can they go against the president?” she said, shaking her head.

Kurt Olney, 57, a landscape contractor from La Jolla, came to the cross to take some pictures. His father, a World War II veteran, is on one of the plaques on the memorial and he is a Vietnam veteran himself. He said he thinks now that the tide has turned on the fight to keep the cross and that the memorial wouldn't be the same without it.

“What are they going to do, take the crosses off Arlington?” he asked

Catherine Williams, 54, a housewife from San Diego, said she came to the cross Monday specifically to be there when the president signed the law.

“I never knew how much the cross meant to me until the fight came and we almost lost it,” she said. “I'm proud to be in a city that puts up such a hard fight to keep it. And I'll be one of them.”

The first Soledad cross was built in 1913 and was featured in Easter sunrise services. The one built there in 1954 and dedicated as a veterans' memorial replaced another that had fallen in a windstorm.

Those fighting to remove the cross say it's a Christian religious symbol and should not sit on city land atop a prominent hill. They note that even historical maps refer to the monument as the “Mount Soledad Easter Cross.”

Bush clearly sided with those who believe the cross is part of a long-standing and culturally significant tribute to the war dead honored at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, and that it does not amount to a government preference for one religion over others.

Hunter's legislation aims to preserve the cross by vesting title to the memorial in the federal government and having it administered by the Secretary of Defense. The Department of Defense would manage the monument and the Mount Soledad Memorial Association would maintain it.

“As a native of San Diego for some 51 years now, I share the happiness of so many other people in the city that we're that much closer to being able to permanently preserve this great icon,” said Charles LiMandri, an attorney advising a group of cross supporters.

LiMandri was among those who attended the signing ceremony at the White House. Also there were Phil Thalheimer, chairman of the private group San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial and William Kellogg, president of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association.

Mayor Jerry Sanders, who has fought to keep the cross atop 800-foot high Mount Soledad, could not make the ceremony, a spokesman said. He was planning to speak at the cross Monday afternoon.

“Today's action allows our Federal government to take the lead in preserving the integrity of the memorial against all those that would alter this key part of San Diego's history,” Sanders said in an early version of the remarks he planned to deliver at the cross.

“I believe the President has substantially improved the chances that the desires of a vast majority of San Diego voters – all those that voted to preserve the integrity of the memorial – will finally be fulfilled.”

Charlie Berwanger, attorney for the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, said the memorial's land would be transferred to the Defense Department immediately upon Bush's signature.

But he said federal attorneys must still file a notice of condemnation proceedings in federal court in San Diego. He said it remains unresolved what amount of compensation the federal government will offer the city and the association for the land.

“If we strike a deal with the (Defense Department) that we can manage and operate the property and do fundraising up there and have events, my client may not be too terribly concerned about compensation,” Berwanger said.

Many believe that with the cross in federal hands, the U.S. Constitution, not California's, will now become the yardstick by which its constitutionality is measured.

Cross supporters say the courts have been more willing to allow religious symbols on public land on federal constitutional grounds, particularly if the symbol has historic or cultural significance. Cross foes note that a pair of 5-4 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in separate cases involving the Ten Commandments established fuzzy guidelines.

The court found that a display inside a Kentucky courthouse was unconstitutional, but that a six-foot granite monument outside the Texas Capitol was legal.