In 1913 it was a simple redwood cross on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean high above the San Diego community of La Jolla, California. The land was designated a public city park in 1916. Vandals destroyed the cross and it was rebuilt in 1923.
In April of 1954 the cross, which had been damaged during a storm was replaced with the current 29-foot concrete cross sitting atop a 14-foot base, and it was dedicated to Korean War Veterans as a war memorial.
In June 1989 two atheists sued in U.S. District Court claiming that the cross violates the federal and state constitutions. The court ruled that the cross did violate separation of church and state and issued an injunction forbidding its presence on public land. The land was subsequently sold to a private party in 1999. The Mount Soledad Memorial Association landscaped the property and installed the concentric walls holding plaques memorializing war veterans.
The case remained in the court system over the following years with reversal after reversal until President Bush signed into law a bill authorizing the transfer of the property to the U.S. Defense Department as a war memorial. The ACLU and the Jewish War Veterans challenged the law in federal court. In July 2008 Federal Judge Larry Burns ruled that the law Bush signed was constitutional because the cross is part of a war memorial and as such its secular meaning transcends any religious meaning.
On January 5, 2011 a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Burns’ ruling. Because the land is now owned by the U.S. government, the cross was ruled to violate the First Amendment and reports were that the city of San Diego were already calling for the removal of the cross. Somewhat surprising because the decision disregards the decision made in Salazar v Buono, in which the court decided the Mojave Desert war memorial cross could stay.
Mt.Soledad had been on my to-do list for a while and I realized I'd better not waste time getting down there to photograph it before the cross was removed for good.
It is a scenic and peaceful location with benches at the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean. I saw plaques memorializing entire families of war veterans, husbands and wives, Jimmy Stewart (did you know that he went from Private to Colonel in four years? I didn't until a gentlemen pointed it out to me. Stewart, who ended his career as a Brigadier General, remains one of the few men to achieve such an accomplishment.) and former President Richard Nixon. I saw a plaque honoring a Jewish man with the Star of David, and rather than offending me I saw it as a sign of someone who was proud of his heritage and faith. Isn't that what tolerance is supposed to be about?
I had a solid religious upbringing in the Episcopal church, but when I see a cross at a war memorial I think of sacrifice made for something greater than one's self.
In the ruling Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote "“The history and absolute dominance of the Cross are not mitigated by the belated efforts to add less significant secular elements to the Memorial,”
“This result does not mean that the Memorial could not be modified to pass constitutional muster, nor does it mean that no cross can be part of this veterans’ memorial. We take no position on those issues.”
"Separation of church and state" can be somewhat misleading to those who haven't taken the time to actually read the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
— The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Liberty Institute is defending the Mt. Soledad cross (and the Mojave Desert memorial cross) and has a petition on-line to ask President Obama to appeal the 9th Circuit Courts decision calling the Mt. Soledad Memorial unconstitutional at Don't Tear Me Down.
More photos in my gallery here.