SAN DIEGO -- Perched high atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla, the towering white cross has sat as a memorial to veterans of the Korean War for half a century. It has also become a symbol of a divisive war between the city of San Diego and a local atheist over the issues of separation of church and state, free speech and freedom of religion.
When a ballot measure that would have allowed the city to sell the land was defeated in the November elections, it looked as though the debate was over. The 43-foot cross would be moved.
But two local congressmen have intervened with a proposition they say will keep the cross where it is.
Republican Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Duncan Hunter want the site -- which now includes more than 1,000 plaques honoring veterans -- named a national war memorial. They added the veterans memorial designation as a rider to a voluminous spending bill approved last month by Congress.
Under the bill, expected to be signed by President Bush soon, the site would become part of the National Park Service but would be maintained by the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, which built the cross as a tribute to veterans in 1954.
"It's a shaky proposition, but if it works, we would be eternally grateful," said William J. Kellogg, president of the memorial association.
Opponents say simply transferring the land to federal hands does not resolve the issue of separation of church and state.
"Crosses belong on churches, not in public parks," said lawyer James McElroy, who is representing atheist Philip Paulson in his efforts to see the cross removed. "It doesn't make any difference if it's on federal land, state land or city land. . . . The government should not be in the business of religion."
For 15 years, San Diego has been embroiled in a legal battle over the cross. Paulson and another atheist sued the city in 1989, and in 1991, a federal judge ruled the cross violates the U.S. and California constitutions. He ordered it removed.
The city has twice tried to sell the property to the memorial association, but both sales were ruled unconstitutional because they were made in the interest of preserving the cross. In October, a federal judge ruled the city still owns the land and must move the cross.
While the legality of the 1998 sale to the memorial association was being challenged, the association made $900,000 worth of improvements to the property. What began as a simple 43-foot cross evolved into several walls of plaques encircling the cross. People bought the plaques to honor their loved ones who were veterans.
For generations, San Diegans have made their way up Mount Soledad to take in the breathtaking views of the deep blue Pacific Ocean and the surrounding lush green hills. Weddings were held here. Ashes were scattered.
"That cross is not just a religious symbol. It's a symbol of coming of age and of remembrance," said Mark Slomka, pastor of Mount Soledad Presbyterian Church, which has been considered an alternate site for the cross.
He said the church would not consider taking the cross until all other alternatives had been exhausted.