The Supreme Court intervened Monday to stop, at least for now, the removal of a large cross from city property in southern California.
A lower court judge had ordered the city of San Diego to remove the cross or be fined $5,000 a day.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, acting for the high court, issued a stay while supporters of the cross continue their legal fight.
Lawyers for San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial said in an appeal that they wanted to avoid the “destruction of this national treasure.” And attorneys for the city said the cross was part of a broader memorial that was important to the community.
The 29-foot cross, on San Diego property, sits atop Mount Soledad. A judge declared the cross, a symbol of Christianity, was an unconstitutional endorsement of one religion over another.
The cross, which has been in place for decades, was contested by Philip Paulson, a Vietnam veteran and atheist.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court had refused to get involved in the long-running dispute between Paulson and the city.
Kennedy granted the stay to the city and the cross’ supporters without comment pending a further order from him or the entire court. It was unclear Monday how long the stay will remain in effect or whether the Supreme Court would ultimately deny the appeals by the city and the cross’ supporters.
In its most recent case involving religious symbols, the Supreme Court ruled last year in a pair of 5-4 decisions that overtly religious displays are unconstitutional, but historic ones are allowed.
The court, then led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, struck down framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses while upholding a 6-foot granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol.
The only religious case to come before the court under Chief Justice John Roberts involved the use of hallucinogenic tea by a small branch of a South American religious sect. The court unanimously ruled that the government cannot hinder religious practices without proof of a “compelling” need to do so.
In San Diego, the Mount Soledad cross was dedicated in 1954 as a memorial to Korean War veterans, and a private association maintains a veterans memorial on the land surrounding it.
Mayor Jerry Sanders has argued that the cross, sitting atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla, is an integral part of the memorial and deserves the same exemptions to government-maintained religious symbols as those granted to other war monuments.
In May, U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Thompson Jr., ordered the city to take down the 29-foot cross before Aug. 2 or pay daily fines of $5,000.
Thompson’s ruling, which he described as “long overdue,” found the cross to be an unconstitutional display of government preference of one religion over another.
Last year, San Diego voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot proposition to transfer the land beneath the cross to the federal government. The measure was designed to absolve the city of responsibility for the cross under the existing lawsuit. But a California Superior Court judge found the proposition to be unconstitutional.