Judges Orders Removal of Cross on Federal Land

     (CN) - The 43-foot cross that sits atop Mt. Soledad in La Jolla must come down, a federal judge grudgingly ruled.
     U.S. District Judge Larry Burns issued the order from San Diego on Thursday, but was quick to point out that he was merely following the 9th Circuit's 2011 ruling that found the cross's long watch over a mountaintop war memorial to be unconstitutional.
     "This court previously held (and continues to believe) that permitting a historic, now 59 year-old cross to remain as part of a federal war memorial atop Mount Soledad cannot be reasonably viewed as our government's attempt to establish or to promote religion," Burns wrote. "But a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled otherwise."
     The current cross was erected in the La Jolla section of San Diego in 1954, and has been an object of controversy, lawsuits and local initiatives for at least 20 years. The federal government took possession of the land in the late 1980s, and only then did it become a war memorial.
     The Jewish War Veterans of the United States, individual veterans and the American Civil Liberties Union filed the present action in 2006. Burns granted summary judgment to the government in 2008, but the 9th Circuit reversed in early 2011.
     "After examining the entirety of the Mount Soledad Memorial in context - having considered its history, its religious and nonreligious uses, its sectarian and secular features, the history of war memorials and the dominance of the cross - we conclude that the memorial, presently configured and as a whole, primarily conveys a message of government endorsement of religion that violates the Establishment Clause," Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for the 9th Circuit.
     The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to consider the issue, citing the absence of a final judgment.
     When that judgment finally came on Thursday, Burns wrote that he could see no other choice, in light of the 9th Circuit's ruling, other than to bring the cross down.
     "The 9th Circuit did not explicitly direct this court to order removal of the cross, but instead questioned whether the Memorial might be modified in some way, and remanded the case 'for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,'" Burns wrote. "Nonetheless, other deliberate language in the opinion makes it clear that removal of the large, historic cross is the only remedy that the 9th Circuit conceives will cure the constitutional violation."
     The issue is likely far from over, however. Supporters of the cross told the Associated Press that they would appeal the ruling to the high court while continuing their efforts to have the property transferred to private owners.
     Meanwhile, the ACLU extolled Burns' ruling, noting that the cross had been erected in the 1950s specifically as a "gleaming white symbol of Christianity."
     "We support the government paying tribute to those who served bravely in our country's armed forces," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "But we should honor all of our heroes under one flag, not just one particular religious symbol."