September 2015 Church & State | People & Events

A private group has purchased the land beneath a large Latin cross in San Diego, a move that could spell the end of a decades-long legal battle. 

The Mt. Soledad Memorial Association announced in July that it purchased a half-acre plot of land under the Mt. Soledad Cross from the U.S. Department of Defense for $1.4 million.

The symbol was erected in 1952 after municipal officials authorized the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association to build a 43-foot cross on top of the hill. The towering cross was dedicated in a Christian service on Easter Sunday in 1954 as a “gleaming white symbol of Christianity,” and it was used as a site for Easter services for the next 40 years.

Litigation over the cross began about 25 years ago. Despite the symbol’s clear history, its defenders argued that it was really a war memorial. To buttress this claim, some 3,000 plaques honoring veterans were added.

Critics, including Americans Uni­ted, pointed out that memorializing veterans was never the original goal of the cross and designating the large cross as a war memorial was little more than an attempt to justify the presence of a towering Christian symbol on public land.

As litigation over the cross went on, several gambits were used to save it. The federal government acquired the land underneath the structure in 2006, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruled in 2011 that the religious display violates separation of church and state, and in 2013 a federal trial judge ordered that the cross be removed from government land.

The sale of the land will probably spell the end of the legal tussle. James McElroy, a San Diego attorney who filed the original case in 1989 on behalf of two Vietnam veterans, said he and the American Civil Liberties Union plan to review the details of the land sale. He added that there may not be much left to do in terms of litigation.

“We may be getting near the end simply for legal and pragmatic reasons,” McElroy told the Los Angeles Times.

Americans United filed an amicus brief in 2014 in the case, Trunk v. City of San Diego.  In its brief, AU disputed claims by the U.S. government that the Latin cross is a generic symbol of military sacrifice.