(03-11) 10:39 PST SAN DIEGO (AP) — A 43-foot cross is to be removed from public land after a 15-year legal battle came to an end this week when the City Council rejected a proposal to transfer the land around the cross to the National Park Service.
Two local congressmen had inserted a provision in a spending bill to have the land transferred as a last-ditch effort to keep the cross on top of Mount Soledad, where it has stood in some form for 90 years.
The bill was signed by President Bush, but City Attorney Michael Aguirre issued a legal opinion last week saying the donation would be for a religious purpose and therefore infringe on state law. The City Council rejected the transfer on Tuesday.
“For us to transfer our cross from city ownership to federal ownership leaves us in the same constitutional position,” Councilman Scott Peters said.
Several churches have expressed interest in a taking the cross, including one that is within 1,000 feet of its current location, said Jim McElroy, an attorney representing Philip Paulson, who brought the lawsuit challenging the cross. He expects it to be moved within 90 days.
The cross has been a point of contention since 1989 when Paulson, an atheist, sued the city, claiming its presence on city property violates separation of church and state provisions in the U.S. and state constitutions.
Over the years, the city had tried several times to sell the cross property to a private buyer. But federal courts overturned the sale each time, saying the transactions were designed to favor a buyer who would keep the cross.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the city’s appeal in the case in 2003. The city then placed a referendum on the November 2004 ballot asking permission from residents to try to sell the property again. The measure failed.
After the vote, California Republican Reps. Randy Cunningham and Duncan Hunter inserted a provision in a spending bill to designate the half-acre parcel of land where the cross stands as a national memorial. The cross is surrounded by several nonreligious granite memorials.
More than 400 people debated the issue for six hours at a public hearing Tuesday, the majority in favor of keeping the cross where it is.
“We’ve grown up with that cross looming over our horizon, and frankly we like it that way,” said Joshua Gross, executive director of Adam Smith of California, a conservative advocacy group.