San Diego County to give park with Latin cross to private group

Thursday, September 16, 1999

Almost a year after being told by a federal judge to disassociate itself from a park that displays a large Latin cross, San Diego County has agreed to turn over control of the land to a private group.

Since 1929, San Diego County has maintained Mount Helix park and a Latin cross atop a hill there. In the late 1980s the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties challenged on religious-liberty grounds the county’s control and upkeep of the cross and the surrounding park. According to an ACLU press release, the county has tried to keep the cross and park under its control “at tremendous cost to taxpayers.”

Last October, however, a federal judge ruled that the county’s attempts to split the park and allow a private entity to maintain the Latin cross were a sneaky ploy to evade earlier court decisions that declared the county could not maintain a religious symbol on any of its property.

In 1991, a federal judge ruled that Latin crosses are universally recognized as symbols of Christianity and could not constitutionally stand on public land. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld that decision.

The county, however, did not give up hopes of maintaining as much of Mount Helix as possible and appealed the 9th Circuit decision. While the case was on appeal, the county gave a portion of the park on which the cross sits to a private nonprofit group. Last October, U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson ruled that the “split of property would still give the appearance of impermissible religious preference by the County,” and that the county had tried to evade court orders by its action.

Last week officials announced that the county would give up ownership of the entire park to a private entity that would maintain the park and the cross. Both county officials and ACLU declared victory.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the dispute took so long to settle because the “ACLU kept wanting more and more.” Jacob also said that the county had won because the cross would “stay atop Mount Helix, where it was always meant to be.”

The ACLU, however, said that the county had “conceded defeat in its effort to mount a Christian cross in a public park.” ACLU of San Diego President Charles Bird said that it had “taken the county nine years to acknowledge what most Americans learn in high school civics class, that there should be a true wall of separation of between church and state.”

The nonprofit group American Atheists criticized the settlement as “a backdoor win” for San Diego County. The group said in an article posted Sept. 13 on its Web site that “technically, the land and cross on Mt. Helix will be in ‘private’ hands rendering it difficult, if not impossible, to have the Christian monument removed. It’s less than what many separationists wanted.”