LA JOLLA — The long-simmering legal dispute over the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla is facing another major twist, with Congress expected this week to approve a measure that would transfer ownership of the scenic property to private hands.
The measure, introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, orders the defense secretary to shift federal ownership of the plot that the 29-foot cross sits on to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, which has been maintaining the veterans memorial there since the 1950s.
The proposal is tucked within massive legislation setting defense policy. The National Defense Authorization Bill passed the House on Thursday and will likely go before the Senate this week.
Could it really be the end to some 25 years of courtroom battles involving the landmark? Maybe, maybe not. History has shown that nothing is simple when it comes to this case.
The cross, which sits atop a 14-foot veterans memorial of about 3,600 plaques, remains in legal limbo after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that the cross was an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. However, the reluctant tear-down order that a San Diego federal judge made in response to that ruling has been stayed amid further legal appeals.
“This has been going on for 25 years, so the idea there could be a possible conclusion on the horizon is very exciting to all of us. But again, you never know,” said memorial association spokesman Bob Phillips.
Even if the bill passes, big question marks remain.
One concerns the price for the land, a figure that would have to be worked out.
The last known price tag was approximately $1.3 million, when the memorial association was reimbursed for its purchase of the plot after a court deemed the sale improper. A requirement for the latest land transfer is that the plot must be used as a veterans memorial in perpetuity, a mandate that could lower the value of the land.
“The government will define what it is and we will be certainly supportive of the fact we’ll have to cover that cost,” Phillips said.
It’s also unclear how the parties fighting the cross — including atheist and Vietnam veteran Steve Trunk and the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America Inc. — will respond.
Attorney Jim McElroy, who represents Trunk, said the “devil is in the details” when it comes to land transfers, adding that if it appears the government is merely trying to save a religious symbol, there could be constitutional problems with the transaction.
“We’re all shrugging our shoulders. Let’s see what it looks like when it gets passed and if the other side calls us,” McElroy said.
A similar church-state conflict in California’s Mojave Desert was resolved two years ago when, as a part of a court settlement, a federal judge permitted the National Park Service to turn over an acre of land to a pair of veterans groups in exchange for five acres of property elsewhere in the desert.