ACLU sues federal government in battle over San Diego cross

Friday, August 25, 2006

SAN DIEGO — The American Civil Liberties Union rejoined a long-running battle over a 29-foot Latin cross standing on public parkland, suing the federal government yesterday, just ten days after President Bush signed legislation designed to shield the monument from legal challenges.

The bill, H.R. 5683, transferred ownership of the hilltop monument from the city of San Diego to the Department of Defense.

The ACLU complaint, filed in San Diego federal court on behalf of the Jewish War Veterans and individual Jewish and Muslim plaintiffs, charges Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with violating the First Amendment.

“The federal acquisition of the Latin cross … does nothing to cure the ongoing constitutional violation,” the lawsuit states. “When any government entity — federal, state, or local — uses taxpayer funds to acquire and prominently display a religious symbol that is sacred to some, but not all, religious believers, it disregards the religious diversity in our society and violates the fundamental right to religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

The Defense Department referred calls to the Justice Department press office, which did not respond to phone calls late yesterday.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, said the lawsuit was no surprise. Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, authored the bill to take over the cross.

“The legislation was drafted with the expectation that legal challenges would continue,” said spokesman Joe Kasper.

The legal fight began in 1989, when Philip Paulson, an atheist and Vietnam War veteran, sued the city of San Diego. He contends that the cross, dedicated in 1954 in honor of Korean War soldiers, excludes veterans who are not Christian.

The ACLU joined Paulson’s 1989 suit but has not been directly involved in the litigation since the mid-1990s, said spokeswoman Rebecca Rauber.

Paulson recently filed his own suit in federal court in San Diego to void the transfer to the Defense Department and declare the monument unconstitutional.

A series of court decisions dating back to 1991 have deemed that the cross violates the California Constitution because it unfairly favors a single religion.

Last year, San Diego voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to preserve the cross by donating it to the federal government. A judge declared that measure unconstitutional.

In July, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to block an order that the city take it down by Aug. 1, giving lower courts time to hear appeals from the city, which has argued that the cross is part of a secular war memorial.

Supporters of the cross, which towers at the center of a secular veterans’ memorial, believe the installation may be protected under more flexible federal rules on public religious displays in nonreligious contexts.

“Now it is a battle between the federal government and the ACLU,” said Phil Thalheimer, chairman of a private group called San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial.

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