SAN DIEGO — For the past 17 years, a concrete Latin cross that crowns a picturesque hilltop in La Jolla, Calif., has been the object of a convoluted local legal battle between the city of San Diego and an atheist who contends that the 29-foot monument cannot stand on public land. But this month the legal tussle turned into a national fight, pitting the Jewish War Veterans against the federal government, and splitting Jewish Democrats in California.
President Bush signed legislation in mid-August that expropriated the cross, declared the monument — built by the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association — a war memorial and turned it over to the Defense Department. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government on behalf of the Jewish War Veterans, which is protesting the monument on church-state grounds.
“We’re saying it’s unconstitutional and it shouldn’t be allowed to exist there,” said Bob Zweiman, chairman of the organization’s national coordinating committee. “We have no problem if it’s on private property, even 5 feet away, but you can’t use federal land to push one religion over any other, especially not at a time when you have soldiers sacrificing for values that are not specific to any one religion or another.”
The Modernist monument, raised on Mount Soledad in 1954 in honor of Korean War veterans, stood unadorned and without controversy until Philip Paulson, an atheist and a Vietnam War veteran, sued in 1989. Today, the cross is ringed by an elaborate series of concentric brick walls, hung with granite plaques bought by individual veterans and inscribed with the symbols of various faiths, to answer judicial concerns that nothing at the site indicate that the cross was dedicated to soldiers.
Federal judges have ruled against the cross repeatedly, and this past May a district court judge ordered the city to remove it. The question of the cross set off a wave of national debate earlier this summer, inspiring editorials in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal after the Supreme Court indicated that it would be willing to hear the case if appeals courts ruled against the city.
Supporters say that the cross deserves special consideration because it has a secular meaning beyond the obvious religious implications. Chief among those defending the cross is a Jewish man named Phil Thalheimer, who argues that it is a generic symbol of fallen soldiers in Western civilization.
“If we were in Israel, then it would be a Star of David, but we’re not in Israel,” said Thalheimer, who leads the local organization that has been most active in defending the cross.
The Bush administration has not yet determined whether it will respond to the complaint from the Jewish War Veterans or file for dismissal, according to a Department of Justice spokeswoman. But the legislation that put the cross under the purview of the Defense Department describes it as the centerpiece of an otherwise secular veterans’ memorial that draws on a “long history and tradition” of honoring war dead with crosses or other religious emblems.
Supporters believe that federal ownership will shield the monument from legal threat because federal restrictions on religious displays are less strict than those set out in California law.
The legislation, introduced in the House by Rep. Duncan Hunter, a San Diego-area Republican who is a conservative Christian, has divided Jewish members of California’s congressional delegation. Rep. Susan Davis, a Democrat, said emphatically on the House floor that she opposes leaving the cross on public land because it makes people who are not Christian feel left out. But two other Jewish Democrats, senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted in favor of federalizing the property, citing its historic value and iconic status in San Diego.
Last year, Thalheimer’s group, San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial, backed a city ballot measure to preserve the cross, which was approved by 76% of voters.
“Families have said this is a place where we want to honor our folks no matter what their faith is. There’s no coercion to participate, so it’s not affecting anyone,” said Thalheimer, the son of a Holocaust survivor. “This doesn’t make it any more of a Jewish issue than it always was. This is an attack on faith that could turn around on us very quickly.”
Thalheimer frequently notes that the Nazis were generally hostile to symbols of organized religion, not only to Jewish displays.
But Allen Miliefsky, commander of one of the local San Diego posts of the Jewish War Veterans, said he thought that the court action might have much more immediate repercussions.
“The best thing for Jews would be to stay out of it, because all this does is promote antisemitism,” Miliefsky said. He also said that the local posts were not consulted before the national organization signed on to the ACLU complaint. “I’m not ducking from any fight — I’d be the first one to jump in if it had meaning — but why doesn’t one of the local synagogues do it? Why aren’t any of the local organizations? Because it doesn’t make a difference, it’s not hurting anyone, and it’s certainly not against anyone’s religion.”
But Zweiman, the Jewish War Veterans committee chairman, said that it is the responsibility of a Jewish group to oppose the encroachment of religion into the public sphere. He noted that the organization successfully sued in the 1980s to have a 65-foot wooden cross removed from a Marine base in Hawaii, and more recently has opposed proselytization by military chaplains.
“That’s the responsibility of any hyphenated organization like ours,” he said. “You can ask, ‘How does this cross on a little piece of land destroy American democracy?’ but once you accept the violation, you’ve already damaged our democracy and our diversity.”