SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A private group in California has bought land from the U.S. government on which sat a controversial cross memorial that has been the subject of an atheist lawsuit since the 1980’s.
According to reports, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association (MSMA) has purchased the land in San Diego from the U.S. Department of Defense for $1.4 million.
“We look forward to continuing to partner with the City of San Diego, our county, and our military community,” Bruce Bailey, president and CEO of the MSMA board, said in a statement. “It marks the first time where our membership can manage the memorial’s affairs from a place of ownership and accountability for the property, which is a new and welcomed step for the association.”
As previously reported, the Mount Soledad war memorial cross was erected in 1954 and has been at the center of controversy for two decades surrounding whether or not its presence is legal, since the religious memorial has been sitting on property owned by the government. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been fighting against the cross for years on behalf of atheist war veteran Philip Paulson.
In 2011, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the display was unconstitutional as it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“The use of such a distinctively Christian symbol to honor all veterans sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion,” the court wrote in its 50-page opinion. “It suggests that the government is so connected to a particular religion that it treats that religion’s symbolism as its own, as universal. To many non-Christian veterans, this claim of universality is alienating…”
The decision was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the case was rejected for review. However, Justice Samuel Alito stated that the court may wish to hear the matter after the local district court rules on the ultimate fate of the cross.
In 2013, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns, nominated by then-president George W. Bush in 2003, stated that he had no other choice but to follow the 9th Circuit’s opinion and declare the cross unconstitutional. He ordered the cross to be removed within 90 days, but stayed the order pending appeal.
In the meantime, members of Congress worked to save the cross, and wrote into December’s defense spending bill a clause urging the government to sell the land to MSMA. Now that the exchange has taken place, it is believed that the decades-long battle over the cross will now come to an end.
“We may be getting near the end (of the case), simply for legal and pragmatic reasons,” James McElroy, one of the attorneys representing Paulson, told reporters this week.
He said that he wants to study the details surrounding the sale, as well as meet with attorneys for the Department of Defense and MSMA.
Christian groups are applauding the move, but also advise that much still needs to be done to protect religious freedom at veterans memorials.
“This is a day to celebrate,” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Texas-based Liberty Institute. “But the work is not over in protecting veterans memorials from legal attacks by organizations opposed to veterans memorials containing religious imagery on public land.”