Almost one year ago to the day, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns put a lump of coal in the stockings of Christian activists when he ruled the 43-foot-tall white cross sitting on federal property atop Mt. Soledad near San Diego had to come down.
On Friday, the U.S. Senate passed the $585-billion defense bill, which includes a provision that might keep it on the mount where it has existed in some form for more than 100 years.
Besides funding the military, the legislation attempts to end 25 years of legal brawling by selling the land under the cross to the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association. The bill still must be signed by President Obama and the provision has to survive court challenges.
The private association built the current cross in 1954 and maintains a Korean War memorial that was erected around it in 2006. But the dispute over the cross long preceded the war tribute.
The original cross was erected in 1913, stolen and replaced in 1923, then burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan after a black family moved into the area. A new cross was put in its place in 1934 but was blown down by high winds in 1952. It was replaced in 1954 with a 29-foot cross on a 14-foot-high base that remains there to this day.
The cross sat on city-owned property for years and was the site of Easter services. That mixture of church and state by San Diego was rejected by state courts. Someone tried sticking a placard by the cross in 1989 and calling it a war memorial. That didn’t fly.
President George W. Bush signed legislation that transferred the property to the Department of Defense in 2006, the same year a U.S. District Court judge ordered the cross be taken down. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with the judge. In 2012 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case and threw it back to the lower courts for final disposition.
The cross is now surrounded by six walls built for 3,200 black granite plaques commemorating war veterans and the battle over moved to federal court.
This is roughly the third time someone has tried to preserve the cross by conveying the property to the association. San Diego voters gave it to them at the polls in 1992, but a federal judge said the sale needed competitive bidding. The association was awarded the land in 1998 after competitive bidding, but the courts thought the bidding system favored the group.
The decision last year by Judge Burns was appealed and is sitting once again before the Ninth Circuit Court. Although the Supreme Court refused to hear the case once, it could still weigh in.