Congress Approves Mt. Soledad Cross Bill

Congress has approved a bill to give the federal government ownership of a piece of land in San Diego containing a 29-foot cross.

The cross atop Mt. Soledad has been at the center of a 17-year legal dispute. Courts have ruled that display of the Christian religious symbol on public property violates the separation of church and state, and in May, a federal judge ordered San Diego to remove it or face a fine of $5,000 a day. (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy stayed the order pending an appeal.)

The bill transferring ownership of the land on Mt. Soledad to the federal government has been pushed by Religious Right organizations and the American Legion.

H.R. 5683 had bipartisan support in Congress. Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushed the bill, as did Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.)

In August, shortly before its month-long recess, the Senate passed the measure by unanimous consent. The House passed the bill in July. President George W. Bush signed the measure on Aug. 14.

Proponents of the religious display, which include San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, have argued that giving ownership of the cross to the federal government might make the legal battle winnable.

Sanders and other cross advocates say the California state constitution has a stricter church-state separation clause than the First Amendment. Advocates have also argued that the Mt. Soledad cross should be exempt from church-state rulings because it is a part of a memorial for veterans of the Korean War and other wars. 

But civil liberties advocates disagree.

Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, “Americans of many different faiths and none fought in our wars. It is wrong to use the symbol of only one faith to memorialize those who died in service to their country.”