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  1998-06-26 - Symbol Trouble, Swastika and Cross

San Diego Region
San Diego

Mount Soledad

Balboa Park
     House of

Symbol problems: cross and 
swastika spark city controversies

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, June 26, 1998:


By Donald H. Harrison

San Diego (special) -- Two landmarks owned by the City of San Diego have been the focus of symbolic controversies in recent weeks--Mount Soledad, home to a controversial Christian cross, and Balboa Park's House of Hospitality, where, in the name of historical accuracy, light fixtures have been refurbished with nazi swastikas.
The cross has been the subject of litigation between the City of San Diego and Philip Paulson, representing a group of atheists who contend that its presence on city-owned property violates constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state.

The swastikas have been covered over to avoid giving offense, but the covers can be pulled off by vandals.

At first, the City of San Diego disagreed with the assertion that the cross was by its very nature a religious symbol. The city's attorneys suggested in response to the court suit that the cross was merely a war memorial. In
litigation that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was ruled that the cross was in fact a religious symbol, and therefore did not belong as the centerspiece of a public park.

Mount Soledad Cross
Under considerable political pressure from Christian groups and radio talk show hosts to save the cross, the City of San Diego put a measure on the ballot, seeking permission to deed 222 square feet of land under the cross to a private non-profit group. The voters approved, but after several more rounds of litigation, the courts did not.

Instead, the courts held that transferring the land to a private organization which would maintain the cross was simply a circumvention of its previous ruling. The court ordered the city to either take down the cross or to sell the land at auction.

The city chose to sell, announcing last week that there will be public bidding on 1/2-acre of land surrounding the cross. Successful bidders must use the land for a war memorial, but the war memorial does not have to be in the form of the present cross, according to city's announcement.

Deputy City Attorney Anthony Shanley said that while keeping up the cross is not a criterion for a successful bid,the city reserves the right to reject bids if the bidder fails to show financial capability or if the proposed war memorial is deemed unacceptable.

While the current cross and other kinds of statuary might be acceptable, Shanley said it is possible an unacceptable design could be submitted. He said the city therefore reserves the right to reject all designs.

Both the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League are closely monitoring the case, having filed friend of the court briefs as the matter wended its way through the courts.

The AJC reacted warily to the city's latest proposal, issuing this statement:

"While the most recent proposal forwareded by the city has the facial appeal of neutrality, one must look deeper into the provision. The newest plan calls for maintaining the site as a war memorial, which are the code words used by the city regarding the symbolism of the cross throughout the legal proceedings," the statement said.

"Additionally, the city maintains a condition that the City Council alone can approve or disapprove of the plans for the 'war memorial.' This is the same body that has been the most recalcitrant group in seeking a solution to this issue that would maintain the separation between religion and state. We support fuller judicial scrutiny to determine whether the current proposal meets the standards put forward by the courts."

A spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League said the organization will have a reaction to the city's latest plan, perhaps by this week. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the suit have retained attorney Jim McElroy to represent them in the next round of the case. 

McElroy was one of the attorneys who represented the family of a slain Ethiopian immigrant who was beaten to death by white separatists in Oregon. A multi-million dollar judgment was won in that case against neo-nazi Tom Metzger of Fallbrook, CA., who founded a group known as the White Aryan Resistance. 

In the civil suit against Metzger, it was argued that Metzger was responsible for inciting the beating.

* * *

For many thousands of San Diegans, Balboa Park's House of Hospitality is known as the building with the wedding patio and the restaurant. Before it was closed for renovation, the Moorish style House of Hospitality-which once included the Cafe del Rey Moro--was the site of innumerable weddings for all denominations.
Built for the 1935 California Exposition, the original House of Hospitality had numerous fixtures which were carefully reproduced by current day artisans with an eye towards historical authenticity. But barely had the city-owned building reopened this year, then it was discovered by members of the public that among the furnishings was a controversial set of five light fixtures--which hang on the rear patio of the wedding area. 

Each of these rectangular fixtures included a swastika on one of its four sides. Symbols on the other three sides
represented earlier eras of German history.

Discovery of the swastikas prompted a protest from the Anti-Defamation League. Rather than simply eliminate the swastikas from the design, city officials decided to retain the swastikas out of what they said was a desire to remain historically accurate. 

House of Hospitality in Balboa Park
However, park officials ordered that the swastikas be blocked from public view. Specifically they decided 1) to hang the chandeliers so that the swastika-bearing sides would face a nearby wall, and 2) cover the swastikas over with metal plates.
This last Monday, one of the metal plates covering the swastika on one of the light fixtures had been pried off by a vandal or vandals, who also pushed in a portion of the fixture's glasswork. Ironically the vandalism was discovered as city officials were briefing a room full of restaurant operators who were considering bidding on opening a new restaurant inside the House of Hospitality.

Park officials decided to see if the plates could be more permanently welded over the swastikas. 

  Swastika chandelier