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San Diego voters approve measure to save memorial cross, but challenges are ahead

SAN DIEGO (BP)–Voters in San Diego July 26 easily approved a proposition that will transfer a landmark war memorial to the federal government and at the same time protect a 29-foot-tall cross at the center of the monument.

Seventy-six percent of voters sided with proponents of Proposition A, a measure that became necessary after the cross atop Mt. Soledad 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 provision on separation of church and state in the California Constitution. The cross was erected in 1954.

The proposition, which would make the monument a national war memorial, needed a two-thirds majority to pass. But even with the overwhelming support, the proposition apparently is going back to court. Nevertheless, the vote was a significant victory for cross supporters.

Chris Clark, pastor of East Clairemont Baptist Church and a member of the group San Diegans for the Mt. Soledad National War Memorial, said the vote was an “overwhelming victory” for those who stood up to “the intolerant few, the judges who legislate from the bench, the corrupt city council and the ACLU.”

“I hope this gives courage and hope to Christians across the country who have seen their First Amendment rights continually chipped away. Working together the citizens of San Diego have risen up to accomplish their will, and we did it within the system prescribed by law,” Clark told Baptist Press.

Charles LiMandri, an attorney with the Thomas More Law Center, noted that crosses are prominent on other government sites, including Gettysburg and Arlington National Cemetery. LiMandri has been involved in the legal fight to save the cross.

“They want to win this battle and then use it as precedent to go after all those crosses that are honoring our veterans all over the country,” LiMandri said of the ACLU. “What are they going to do? Pull them off of all the graves at Normandy, too? … Most of the people in this country are tired of sitting back and letting them do what they want, where they want, when they want and how they want, and they’re fighting back.”

Crosses at veterans’ sites, LiMandri said, represent “the hope” that families will be reunited with their loved ones “in the afterlife.”

The cross is not the only element of the memorial. In the past several years hundreds of plaques have been installed, honoring the veterans and war dead.

It took federal action to make the July 26 vote possible.

In December President Bush signed into law a bill that allows the federal government to assume ownership of the property should San Diego choose to donate it. But in March the city council voted not to transfer the property to the government, and supporters of the cross — both Christian and non-Christian — stepped in with a petition drive. They gathered 73,000 valid signatures (more than twice what was required), requesting that the city council place the matter before voters.

The transfer is seen as a way to preserve the memorial after a judge ruled in 1991 that the cross on public land violated the California Constitution. Two attempts by the city to sell the land to the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association were overturned in court.

“You don’t have to take it,” Clark said. “You can take matters into your own hands. You can find out the legal prescriptions to overturn bad government decisions. You can generate a grassroots effort to reverse the decisions. You can bring the decision before the people for a vote. You can stand up and declare the reasons why you are working to bring about the necessary change -– because of the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ that has transformed you.”

But as in any system of law, the will of the people can be challenged, a promise made after the vote by attorney James McElroy, who represented Paulson in the original and subsequent cases. He told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the vote was meaningless. “It doesn’t mean a [expletive] thing,” McElroy told the paper. “Voters should have never voted on it. It’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

McElroy asserted that the vote was unconstitutional and that he would challenge the victory in court and ask the judge who originally ruled against the cross in 1991 to impose a fine of $5,000 per day for every day the cross remains on the hilltop.

“I think they have acknowledged this is the last chance to save the cross,” McElroy told The Union-Tribune. “And when the court tells them this is not going to work, what else have they got?”

LiMandri, of the Thomas More Law Center, said the case eventually could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The chances of a pro-family victory at the high court could increase if nominee John Roberts is confirmed by the Senate, LiMandri said, noting that Roberts would replace Sandra Day O’Connor, who voted against Ten Commandments displays this summer.

“The other side is scared to death of what is happening with the Supreme Court,” LiMandri said. “Guess what happens if Roberts gets on the court? We’re going to have that fifth vote. … This case or one like it … is going to be the one that’s going to put the law back on track for religious symbols on public property.”

Clark said McElroy has been trying to tear the cross down for 16 years “to remove that reminder of Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, to remove a monument that honors those American heroes.”

“I am so grateful that the Lord moved His people to rise up and act to protect not only a war memorial, not only a concrete cross, but our right to express our religious views that are protected under the First Amendment. Without the reminder of the greatest sacrifice in all of history, the honor to America’s military heroes is greatly diminished,” Clark said.
With reporting by Michael Foust.

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  • Gregory Tomlin