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Bush signs bill to protect Mount Soledad cross

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush signed into law Aug. 14 legislation to protect San Diego’s Mount Soledad cross as a memorial to military veterans.

The president’s action transferred the title for the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial, a 29-foot cross atop an 800-foot mountain, to the federal government. The new law is intended to enable the federal government to preserve the cross as a national military war memorial to be administered by the Department of Defense. The federal government is required to pay an amount to be determined in the next year and would be barred from extending the property’s boundaries.

“Today is a great day for America’s veterans and the San Diego community,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif., the chief sponsor of the bill, said after a low-key White House signing ceremony, according to Copley News Service. “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.”

Leading religious freedom litigator Jay Sekulow described Bush’s action as “an important milestone in the ongoing fight to save one of the most recognizable and important symbols honoring the men and women who gave their lives to protect our freedoms.”

“A cross that has been in place for more than half a century has now captured the attention of the nation,” said Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has represented Hunter and 21 other members of Congress in seeking to protect the cross in court.

The law’s enactment brings a new dimension to what has been a 17-year, church-state battle waged mostly in the judiciary. The U.S. Supreme Court may eventually be called on to settle the issues in a fight that is now in more than one court.

Philip Paulson, an atheist who first sought to remove the cross in 1989, urged a federal judge in San Diego Aug. 10 to strike down the federal legislation to transfer the memorial’s title, Copley reported. A lawyer for Paulson said he expects the court to rule on the request in September, according to Copley.

Paulson and others who advocate a strict separation of church and state have contended that the cross should not be displayed in a public setting.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and States, said during congressional action on the bill in July, “It is wrong to use the symbol of only one faith to memorialize those who died in service to their country.”

Bush did not make public remarks upon signing the measure, but the White House issued a policy statement on July 19, the day the House of Representatives voted 349-74 for the bill. The White House said it “supports the important goal of preserving the integrity of war memorials” and “[j]udicial activism should not stand in the way of the people.”

The Senate agreed Aug. 1 by unanimous consent to the House measure.

Congress passed in 2004 a bill designating the cross as a national memorial in honor of veterans and authorizing federal ownership of it if San Diego donated it. In 2005, San Diego voters approved with a 76 percent majority an initiative authorizing the city to give the memorial to the federal government. A state judge, however, ruled the measure was unconstitutional.

It appeared San Diego might be forced to remove the cross this summer before the Supreme Court prevented such action. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy blocked enforcement of a federal judge’s order for the city to remove the cross by Aug. 1 or pay $5,000 a day in fines. Kennedy’s July 7 decision prevented fines until a higher court rules on an appeal of that opinion. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the case in mid-October.

The current version of the Mount Soledad cross was erected in 1954 as a tribute to veterans of the Korean War. The site includes walls of granite plaques in honor of more than 1,800 veterans from various wars.

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