Sep 15, 2011

In 1952, the City of San Diego authorized the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association to build a 43-foot-tall Latin cross on top of Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, California. In 1989, two Vietnam veterans from San Diego sued the City in federal court, claiming that the display of the cross on City property violated the United States and California constitutions. In 1991, the trial court ruled that the cross violated the California Constitution and ordered that the cross be removed from City property; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the decision. In response, the City twice attempted to sell the patch of land under the cross, but the trial court and the Ninth Circuit concluded that those attempts also violated the California Constitution. In 2006, Congress, with the City’s approval, enacted federal legislation taking the Mt. Soledad property from the City.

Round One

In August 2006, one of the original veteran plaintiffs and the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America filed separate lawsuits against the federal government, arguing that the display of the Mt. Soledad Cross on federal property violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In July 2008, the court ruled against the veterans, and the veterans appealed.

In January 2009 Americans United filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit in in support of the veterans. Joined by several other organizations, we argued that the cross has long been, and remains today, the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and that the cross cannot be recast as a military symbol without undermining the Establishment Clause. In January 2011, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court court and held that the display of the cross is unconstitutional.

Round Two

After the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the trial court ordered the government to remove the cross. The government appealed this ruling to the Ninth Circuit. In December 2014, we filed an amicus brief, on behalf of five military historians, in support of the plaintiffs. The brief explains that the military has long recognized the cross as a uniquely Christian symbol, and has not used it to memorialize non-Christian soldiers. The cross has therefore not acquired a secular meaning in the military context that might convert the Mt. Soledad Cross into a permissible secular symbol.

In December 2014, Congress inserted a provision into the National Defense Authorization Act authorizing the Secretary of Defense to sell the land on which the cross stands to the private organization that maintains the cross. In July 2015, the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association announced that it had bought the federal land that hosts the memorial for $1.4 million. The case has meanwhile been submitted to mediation.