WASHINGTON – A giant cross in San Diego that's been contested for 17 years by an atheist became the property of the federal government Monday with President Bush's signature.
Supporters hope the legislation transferring the 29-foot Mt. Soledad cross and war memorial to the federal government will protect it for good. A series of court decisions have deemed the cross, built as a Korean War memorial, unconstitutional because it stands on public property.
"Just because something may have a religious connotation doesn't mean you destroy it and tear it down," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., after an Oval Office signing ceremony attended by other cross supporters and Republican House members from San Diego who sponsored the bill.
"It's a great victory for our veterans," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
But the legal fight that began in 1989 when atheist Philip Paulson sued San Diego over the cross is not played out yet.
Paulson's attorney, Jim McElroy, said he filed papers in federal court in San Diego last week to void the transfer and declare it unconstitutional.
"I don't think anybody really thinks the cross is going to remain on Mt. Soledad. It's been 17 years of litigation, and every court, every judge who's ever looked at it has ruled it's unconstitutional," McElroy said.
The bill signing "smacks of election-year politics," he said.
Paulson, a Vietnam War veteran, contends that the cross, dedicated in 1954 in honor of Korean War veterans, excludes veterans who are not Christian.
State and federal judges have ordered the cross removed, saying it represents an unconstitutional endorsement of one religion. In July, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked an order that the city take it down by Aug. 1, giving lower courts time to hear appeals.
City officials have argued that the cross is part of a secular war memorial, and the cross has been embraced by San Diego residents who last year overwhelmingly approved a measure to preserve it by donating it to the federal government. A judge declared the measure unconstitutional.
The legislation authorizing the transfer passed the House and Senate in recent weeks after California's two senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, agreed to let it go through.
Federal ownership could help insulate the cross from additional legal challenges, because under federal law, which is more flexible than California law, religious displays may stand on public property if they have a secular meaning.