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Cross in San Diego must go in 90 days, judge rules

SAN DIEGO (BP)–The fight is “far from over,” a Southern Baptist pastor said after a federal judge told the city of San Diego to remove a 29-foot-high cross from public grounds within 90 days or pay $5,000 for each day it remains part of a war memorial in a hilltop park.

U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. upheld a decision he handed down in 1991 when he ruled that the cross’ existence on city property was unconstitutional.

“It is now time, and perhaps long overdue, for this court to enforce its initial permanent injunction forbidding the presence of the Mount Soledad Cross on city property,” Thompson wrote May 3.

Chris Clark, pastor of East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church and a member of the group San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial, told Baptist Press he is disappointed that the judge would disregard the fact that a ballot measure passed by 76 percent of San Diego voters last July is under appeal.

Proposition A would have transferred ownership of the cross property from the city to the federal government after President Bush signed a bill allowing the government to assume responsibility for it. A San Diego Superior Court judge ruled the proposition unconstitutional in October, and an appeal was filed.

“We were disappointed in the fact that he would not allow that to run its course before he would go and issue this order to have the cross taken down,” Clark said. “But, all things considered, it’s not altogether surprising since he was the one that made the original ruling in 1991 that the cross was unconstitutional.”

The cross came under fire from a San Diego atheist and his ACLU-funded lawyer more than a decade ago. In 1989, atheist Philip Paulson filed suit against the city of San Diego, claiming that the presence of the cross on city property violated the California constitution’s provision on separation of church and state.

Throughout a 17-year legal battle, courts have rejected offers to sell the property to a private group, and in 2003, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said he will propose appealing the latest ruling, a move that would need approval from the city council.

“Seventy-five percent of the voters said they thought it was extremely important,” Sanders said, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “I think we need to go to an appeal.”

Clark said the mayor also has considered seeking a stay or a temporary restraining order on the injunction pending the appeals.

“Right now it looks as if we have the votes in city council to go ahead and get the appeal on the road and going forward. That looks very favorable, but time is of the essence here,” Clark said.

San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial is working with the Thomas More Law Center to explore their options as a citizens group to gain the legal standing necessary to appeal the judge’s decision.

“Meanwhile, we’re trying to rally the churches around San Diego and the country to pray for this situation and to be ready to mobilize because it may take an effort that goes way beyond the San Diego city limits to preserve this war memorial with a cross as the centerpiece,” Clark said.

The cross is worth fighting for, Clark said, from his standpoint as a citizen and as a pastor.

“As a citizen, it’s important because the First Amendment is being challenged, that not only can government not establish a state religion but they are also not to hinder the free exercise of religion, and that’s essentially what’s being done,” he said. “You have a group of people who 90 years ago put up a cross and 50 years ago dedicated that cross to veterans of the Korean War. To say that they cannot do that because it’s a religious symbol is a violation of the First Amendment.

“As a pastor, every time I look up there, I see a message of the greatest sacrifice in all of history, and it is being used as an honor to those that have sacrificed their lives in wars to defend our country,” Clark said. “What better way to honor them than with a reminder of the greatest sacrifice ever offered in human history?”

The Union-Tribune reported that William Kellogg, president of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, the private organization that operates the memorial, said he is prepared to have the cross moved to private property nearby and replaced at the memorial with another appropriate symbol to honor the veterans.

“We’ll move forward as God directs,” Clark said.

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  • Erin Roach