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2005-11-05-Mt. Soledad Cross
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2005 blog


The Mt. Soledad Cross
An Issue That Won't Go Away

By Donald H. Harrison

Attorney Jim McElroy says while he has been prevailing in court case after court case in his effort to remove the large Christian cross from Mt. Soledad, politically he needs assistance to persuade the San Diego City Council that its constant end-runs around the California and U.S. Constitutions are counter-productive.

He made a pointed appeal for help on Monday, Oct. 17, at a gathering of the American Jewish Committee in the home of Richard Levi.  It was clear from the introduction given to McElroy by Tad Seth Parzen, president of AJC’s San Diego chapter, that Parzen favors rendering such support to McElroy and his client Philip Paulson, who have fought for 16 years to remove the cross from the public park above La Jolla.

However, any formal action will require a vote of AJC’s board.  Parzen said a meeting to discuss this possibly will be scheduled within the next two months.

On July 26 San Diego city voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to transfer Mount Soledad Memorial to the U.S. Interior Department in the expectation that the cross would be maintained.  On Oct. 7, Superior Court Judge Patricia Yim Cowett forbade the transfer, saying it would be  “an unconstitutional aid to religion in violation of Article XVI, Section 5, of the California Constitution.” 

As this column was being written, the matter still pended before U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Thompson Jr., who previously had ruled that the cross’s permanent location on public property is unconstitutional. McElroy said he planned to ask the federal judge to set a deadline for the city to remove the cross from the public park, and to fine the city $10,000 per day after that deadline for every day the city fails to comply with the order.

McElroy told the AJC members that constitutional protections for the rights of minorities are not subject to popular vote.  “What if people in Montgomery County (Alabama) voted when Rosa Parks decided she didn’t want to sit in the back of the bus?” asked the attorney in reference to the incident generally credited with sparking the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

Saying the struggle over Mount Soledad was one to end governmental preference for one religion over another, McElroy said only recently have forces intent on saving the cross been trying to convert it into a war memorial. 

“The cross was dedicated on an Easter Sunday,” he said.  “It had been the site of Easter Sunday sunrise services until the suit (by Paulson) was filed (in 1989).”  He paraphrased a rabbi, whom he did not identify, as telling him that while he has been asked to officiate at weddings at venues all over the county, not once has any Jewish couple asked to be married under the cross.

Charles LiMandri, who is the attorney for the Thomas More Law Center, was selected by City Attorney Michael Aguirre to represent the city in the case before Judge Cowett. The Thomas More Center describes itself as being “dedicated to the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians.” 

McElroy said Aguirre believes the city should abandon its efforts to resist the removal of the cross, but appointed LiMandri in an effort to demonstrate his fairness to advocates for the cross.  Whatever Aguirre’s intentions, said McElroy, this was just one more example of the city aligning itself with the cause of one religion over others.

In a question-and-answer session, McElroy was asked about the position of rival mayoral candidates Jerry Sanders and Donna Frye.  He responded that while Frye has been cagey in her answers about the case, she has voted in the past to comply with court rulings and end the city’s appeals.  Sanders, on the other hand, has described the cross as a “San Diego landmark” and has promised to do everything he can to preserve it.

Asked if the removal of the cross would lead to actions against other religious symbols in public places—such as the many frescoes in Balboa Park showing Father Junipero Serra holding a cross, or the brick cross and statue of a padre at Presidio Park (the site of the original Mission San Diego), or the former Temple Beth Israel in Heritage Park—McElroy responded that unlike the large cross atop Mount Soledad, these other displays “do not send the message of a pre-eminent symbol.”