Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Cross legal battle may soon be over

A 17-year legal battle over the Mount Soledad Cross may soon come to an end. The San Diego Mayor's office is conceding the city will move the cross rather than pay a $5,000 a day fine. KPBS reporter

A 17-year legal battle over the Mount Soledad Cross may soon come to an end. The San Diego Mayor's office is conceding the city will move the cross rather than pay a $5,000 a day fine. The cross' only reprieve, would be a stay from a judge or through federal intervention. But time is running out. KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon has this review on the cross' history . . .a history entrenched in religion and controversy.

In 1913, when residents of Pacific Beach and La Jolla dragged the first wooden cross up the side of Mount Soledad, they could not have known the legacy they would leave. It would be the first of three crosses to sit high on the mountain top. In the beginning, it was an unabashed signpost for local Christians to celebrate Easter Sunday.

A 1923 newspaper article from the La Jolla Light reads, the Easter services began a few years back with a handful of people in attendance, but have grown each year until there is usually an audience of from three to four hundred.


The first cross stood its ground for 10 years. It was stolen or vandalized, possibly the target of the Ku Klux Klan. A 1923 San Diego Sun reports a fiery cross that burned on Mount Soledad, a calling card from the KKK.

In 1934, the second cross was built by the city and volunteers. It remained until 1952, when it was blown over by strong winds.The news made the front page. The felled cross was described in the San Diego Union as the symbol of the mystic beauty of the Resurrection to so many.

What a difference 50 years and a lawsuit make.

The third and final cross is the one that stands here today at the Soledad Natural Park. Fourty-three feet tall and 20 tonnes, not likely to be toppled by winds or destroyed by vandals. But it is vulnerable. Threatened by a 17-year-old lawsuit.

Lawyer James Mcelroy represents the San Diego man, Philip Paulson, who initiated the first lawsuit in 1989.


McElroy: It's the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity as the court has said. It symbolizes the crucifixtion and resurrection. It is the most important symbol to Christians all around the world and has been since the birth of our country.

And because of that, the courts have decided it's a symbol that cannot stay on public property because it violates the constitutional separation between church and state.

The city has taken a different view.

Sanders: Some say this debate is about the cross, I could not disagree more. This is not just about a Christian symbol. What this boils down to is preserving a nationally registered war memorial that is an integral part of San Diego history.

There's debate over whether the cross was ever registered as a national war monument. And it was only after the lawsuit was filed, the site was declared an historic war memorial.

So when is a cross more than just a cross?

Fred Sainz, the mayors spokesman, concedes, the city would never erect a similar cross today, because he says, it wouldn't be appropriate. He says there's no denying it's a religious symbol. But he says it has other meaning too.

Sainz: What we're arguing is that symbols such as this do have places when they come to represent a greater meaning, in this case a war memorial.

A judge first ordered the cross be taken down 15 years ago, but several appeals and millions of taxpayer dollars have extended its life - until now. Last month, a federal judge ordered the city to remove the cross or face paying a five thousand dollar a day fine beginning in August.

The city has asked the judge for more time to appeal its case. The mayor has even asked the President to intervene and take control of the property. But time is not on the city's side.

The mayor's spokesman, Fred Sainz, says despite the fervent pleas by supporters of the cross, the courts will be the final arbiter.

Sainz: "Ultimately if there has not been any success on any fronts, the cross will have to be moved to another location. If you believe in the rule of law and you believe in the authority of our court system and appeals court don't grant stays or allow you to pursue appeals and there has been no relief coming from the federal government we will have exhausted every single option at our disposal and the mayor will have to do what is in the best interest of our city and that is to unfortunately move the cross from where it sits today.

When the third and final cross was erected back in 1954, the city held a special dedication on Easter Sunday. At the time, the San Diego Union wrote, the cross will be the scene of Easter sunrise services in future years as two other crosses were in previous years.

Prophecy that may in the end, mean the demise of the third, in a trinity of crosses that have stood atop Mount Soledad for nearly 100 years.

For KPBS News, I'm Joanne Faryon