Sixteen years of legal wrangling over whether a 43-foot cross at the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla, Calif., violates the separation of church and state came to a halt Tuesday when the San Diego City Council voted 5 to 3 to reject a plan to keep the cross where it is.
After more than 50 years overlooking the city of San Diego, the cross, erected as part of veteran's war memorial, will be moved. The vote, after an emotional six-hour public hearing that drew hundreds of residents, slams the door on recent attempts to retain the cross as part of a national monument, including an effort by two Republican members of Congress.
Built on land owned by the city of San Diego, the cross has been repeatedly ordered by a federal judge to be removed from its current location -- the centerpiece of several circles of granite honoring service members.
After several unsuccessful attempts by the city to sell the property to retain the cross, Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), inserted a provision in a spending bill last year designating it a national veterans memorial. President Bush signed the bill in December. Under the legislation, however, the city had to agree to give the land to the National Park Service.
But even if the land deal had gone through, it still was not certain that the cross could stay.
Last week, City Attorney Michael Aguirre issued a legal opinion that said donating the land to the federal government for a religious purpose would be a violation of the state constitution.
"Further," he wrote, "based on current case law, such a transaction would also violate the federal Constitution and, in all likelihood, provide fodder for additional legal proceedings against the city."
Attorney James McElroy, who sued the city on behalf of atheist Philip Paulson to have the cross removed, said the city had no choice but to refuse to donate the land or return to court -- again.
"It's a preeminent Christian symbol on public land. It's a pretty simple call," McElroy said. "But these people are under tremendous political pressure to save that cross. Not a single one of them wanted to vote the way they did."
The Mount Soledad Memorial Association, which maintains the site, initially supported efforts to keep the cross. But fearing the entire memorial could be in jeopardy, the association urged that the cross be moved to private land so it could be replaced with another symbol to honor veterans.
Several local churches -- including one 1,000 feet from the cross's current location -- have expressed interest in taking the cross, which McElroy expects to be moved within 90 days.
"After so many years of fighting for something you believe in and not being a very popular guy in town, I think we're finally near the end," McElroy said. "It's been a long time."