Alumnus fighting to save cross at San Diego war memorial

SAN DIEGO (BP) – Voters in San Diego, Calif., will decide July 26 whether or not to adopt a proposition that will protect a cross at the center of a memorial to America’s war veterans.

If approved under Proposition A, the city will donate to the federal government all of the city’s rights, title and interests in the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial property for use as a national war memorial. Supporters of the proposition see the donation of the property to the government as the only means of protecting the integrity of the memorial and the religious meaning of the cross.

The 29-foot tall cross -- a part of the memorial on city land since 1954 -- has been the focus of multiple legal cases filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU lawyer James McElroy has argued since 1989 that the cross on public land violates the provision on separation of church and state in the California Constitution. McElroy represents Philip Paulson, a Vietnam War veteran and atheist.

U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. ruled in 1991 that the presence of the cross on public land creates an established religion and should be removed, but the San Diego City Council pre-empted the removal of the cross by selling the land to the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association. The association is a non-profit veterans group.

A federal court subsequently found the sale of the land to the veterans group illegal, despite the fact that 76 percent of San Diego’s voters approved the sale under Proposition F in 1992. The sale itself violated the California Constitution because it was tantamount to government support of religion, the court ruled.

After the first sale of the property was invalidated, the city solicited competitive bids for the property. The highest bidder was the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association. When the association took possession of the property, friends and relatives constructed around the cross a granite memorial bearing the likenesses and stories of the veterans.

Paulson and McElroy appealed the second sale because of a stipulation in the terms of the sale that the cross should remain in place. In a recent decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the liberal group, saying that the second sale of the land with the cross also violated the state’s law on separation of church and state.

Another proposition in November 2004 would have sold the land to the highest bidder in a way that would not violate the state’s laws. The language of Proposition K, however, confused many voters.

“People voting ‘no’ believed they were trying to save the cross. People voting ‘yes’ thought they were trying to save the cross,” said Chris Clark, pastor of East Clairemont Baptist Church and a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv 1986). “It was the result of a poorly worded proposition.” The measure failed, leaving the enhanced memorial in jeopardy.

Outside assistance came to supporters of the memorial in December 2004 when President Bush signed into law a bill (HR 4818) authorizing the federal government to take over the care and protection of the memorial should the City of San Diego approve the donation of the land to the federal government. San Diego Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Randy “Duke” Cunningham authored the bill.

Surprisingly, the City Council rejected the offer of the federal government to assume responsibility for the land March 8. Soon a group called San Diegans for a Mt. Soledad National War Memorial took action, responding with a petition drive that netted more than 105,000 signatures. The petition requested that the City Council rescind its vote and allow the citizens to decide.

Clark, who wanted to be involved, became a member of the steering committee for the group and led his church to participate. “The city clerk remarked that the drive to collect that many signatures in what amounted to 23 days was unprecedented in city history,” Clark said.

In May, the City Council met and, after hearing arguments for reversing their decision from Clark and others, agreed to put the measure before the citizens in the special mayoral election July 26.

For Clark, the cross at the Mt. Soledad memorial is much more than a monument to the nation’s war dead. “The Lord really began to work on my heart about the whole issue of the cross. I searched the Scriptures and found that Paul referred to the message of the cross in 1 Corinthians 1:18. It occurred to me that the 29-foot cross is more than a symbol or an object,” he said.

“When anyone looks at that cross, there is a message being communicated. That message is foolishness or moronic to those who are perishing. But to those of us being saved, it is the power of God. I realized that when I look at that cross, I am reminded of the power of God to forgive all of my sins, save my soul and give me a purpose for living. I am reminded of a message that says the same life-changing power that I have experienced is available to all.”

Clark said he worries where the ACLU and other groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State will stop if they win the battle over the cross on Mt. Soledad. He said the crosses at the nearby Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and other locations would have to be removed as well.

Clark said that he is able to see Mt. Soledad from a number of different directions as he drives home from his church everyday. “In fact, on the street in my neighborhood which I travel everyday, I can see Mt. Soledad and that cross. Ever since the March 8 meeting of the City Council and that study in 1 Corinthians, when I drive that street and look at Mt. Soledad and that cross, I am reminded of the message I have been commissioned to deliver to this community,” he said.

Not everyone who wants the cross on Mt. Soledad saved, however, is a Christian. In fact, the leader of the fight and chairman of San Diegans for a Mt. Soledad National War Memorial is Jewish. Phil Thalheimer said he is involved in preserving the monument for several reasons, among them the fact that his parents are Holocaust survivors.

“First, this is a piece of San Diego’s history that shouldn’t go away. It has expanded to include veterans of World War II, Vietnam and even the first war in the Persian Gulf,” Thalheimer said.

“Second, as a Jew it reminds me that when you have this type of religious intolerance, it leads to what my family experienced. Symbols come down little by little just like they did in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. And where does it stop? The answer is that it doesn’t.”

Thalheimer said another reason he stands with those who want the cross preserved is that he would appreciate similar support should it ever be required. “If you don’t stand with other people, they won’t stand with you.” He said the effort to preserve the cross is a “fundamental beachhead.”

“I don’t want to live in a country in which other people have the right to dictate religious expression,” he said.

Established 1908 Fort Worth, Texas