SAN DIEGO – The Supreme Court won't get involved in a fight over whether a 29-foot war memorial cross can remain on public land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, with justices refusing Monday to review an appeals court ruling that deemed the Mount Soledad cross an unconstitutional mixing of government and religion.
The decision came despite the fact that the court plunged into the dispute over the use of religious symbols to honor fallen troops two times recently. The court has recently signaled a greater willingness to allow religious symbols on public land.
The current cross sits on a 14-foot base, surrounded by walls that display more than 2,100 plaques commemorating individual veterans and veterans groups.
Last year's ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that deemed the cross unconstitutional capped two decades of legal challenges over the 1950s cross that became a memorial to Korean War veterans.
A number of military memorials on public lands across the country have been challenged in recent years by civil liberty activists and atheists who say they violate the separation between church and state.
The Supreme Court in 2010 refused to order the removal of a congressionally endorsed war memorial cross from its longtime home atop a remote rocky outcropping in California's Mojave Desert. That cross was later stolen and supporters are working on getting one restored to the spot.
The Supreme Court last year also refused to hear an appeal of a ruling that ordered the removal of 12-foot-high crosses along Utah highways in honor of dead state troopers.
David Loy, of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego County, said the Mount Soledad case now goes back to the U.S. District Court in California to decide what measures should be taken to remedy the situation.
"In this case the government has no business playing favorites with religion, thus the Supreme Court decided properly to stay out of it," he said.
Allyson Ho, lead counsel for the co-defendant, the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association, said her group remained hopeful the cross would still remain in place despite Monday's defeat.
"While we are disappointed the Court did not accept this case for review at this time, we are hopeful we can find a solution that will allow this veterans memorial to remain where it has stood for over half a century," she said.