SAN DIEGO — The man behind the lengthy dispute over a 29-foot cross on city land in San Diego has died.

Philip Paulson succumbed to liver cancer Oct. 25 at the age of 59, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Paulson, a Vietnam War veteran, led a legal battle to remove the Christian cross from the Mount Soledad War Memorial, which has overlooked San Diego for half a century.

But his case is being continued by the American Civil Liberties Union, and if efforts to bring down the cross prevail, religious symbols at Arlington National Cemetery and Gettysburg will be in jeopardy.

That’s the view of attorneys defending Mount Soledad.

“If the ACLU wins this one, they’re going to go after all these monuments (including Arlington and Gettysburg),” said Charles LiMandri, a San Diego attorney who has led efforts to bring the memorial under federal jurisdiction. “A lot of them have either religious symbols, text or some type of religious reference on them in every state in the union, and they’re all going to be at risk.

“For hundreds of years, crosses have been seen as appropriate symbols of the sacrifice someone gave for their country regardless of their religious beliefs,” he said.

When Paulson filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking to remove the Christian symbol 17 years ago, the Mount Soledad memorial was owned by the City of San Diego. The city attempted to sell the property on several occasions, but courts blocked the sales. Last year, more than 76% of San Diegans voted in a special ballot to transfer the property to the federal government as a national war memorial.

President Bush signed a bill Aug. 14 transferring the memorial to the federal government by applying the powers of eminent domain.

Lawsuits are pending in federal and state courts on three fronts. The ACLU is challenging the legality of the special ballot that authorized the city to transfer the memorial to the federal government. It is also challenging the federal legislation transferring the land.

Another case involves the appeal of a federal judge’s May 2006 ruling that the City of San Diego remove the cross within 90 days or face fines of up to $5,000 per day. In July, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy ordered a stay in that ruling. The memorial is now under federal jurisdiction.

‘War on America

Rob Muise, an attorney with the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, presented oral arguments Oct. 19 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He asked the court to dismiss the case because it’s moot.

“There’s no basis for this court to affirm an injunction against the City of San Diego to order them to remove a federal memorial from federal property under state constitutional law,” he said. “The stay by Justice Kennedy and the recent act of Congress are significant factors that have shifted the momentum of this case in favor of preserving the memorial cross.”

James McElroy, attorney for Philip Paulson and the ACLU, denied that there would be implications for Arlington National Cemetery.

“If you go to Arlington, you will see crosses and stars of David on individual gravesites, which is perfectly appropriate where the people are making the choice, not the government,” he told the Register.

John Eastman, a professor at Chapman University School of Law, expects the court to put the case on hold pending the outcome of the other two cases.

The cases will likely end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will likely vote to keep the cross, he said.

He said, “It’s been going on for 17 years, and Justice Kennedy weighed in with a stay. They don’t do that unless they think the case is going to end up there.”

The battle over the Mount Soledad memorial is just one example of the ACLU’s “war on America,” Eastman says.

“If you look at the trend in leftist theory about society, it’s bought into the notion that there should be no communal restraints or standards because that’s a violation of liberty,” he said. “The line between liberty and licentiousness makes no sense to them.”

“To vindicate their philosophy of life, they demonize any institution that will continue to hold the old moral cultural norms,” Eastman explained. “As a result, you see massive attacks against the Church and massive attacks against groups like the Boy Scouts that are the quintessential holders of the moral line.”

Other Crosses

In recent years, the ACLU has sued or threatened to sue several jurisdictions with Christian symbols in their logos or seals.

One case still winding its way through the courts is a 2004 decision by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to remove a small cross from the county seal after the ACLU threatened a lawsuit over the presence of the cross. The county avoided a suit by changing its seal, which sparked public outrage.

Muise, of the Thomas More Law Center, argued before a federal appeals court Oct. 17 that the county’s decision showed hostility toward religion. The law center’s suit alleges that some members of the Board of Supervisors collaborated with the ACLU in the action.

“It wasn’t a situation where they discussed modifying or updating the seal; it was simply a decision to remove the cross,” Muise said. “We’ve alleged that there was some direct cooperation with the ACLU in doing this. There was no basis for taking that cross off. That cross was perfectly constitutional as it was.”

Similarly, the ACLU threatened to sue the village of Tijeras, N.M., which has a rosary in its town seal, but backed off after the plaintiff who brought the complaint decided not to go forward with it.

The ACLU of New Mexico declined in helping to sue the City of Las Cruces, N.M., whose seal contains three Christian crosses. “We thought there was a strong historical argument to justify the depiction of crosses in the city seal, most importantly, the very name of the city,” Executive Director Peter Simonson told the Register. Las Cruces is Spanish for "the crosses."

But two residents, Paul Weinbaum and Martin Boyd, are pursuing a suit against the city, The city says the crosses are symbols of its heritage. A U.S. District Court will hear the case this month.

Gary McCaleb, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, is defending the Utah Highway Patrol Association against another lawsuit brought by a group of atheists. The association routinely erects steel crosses to memorialize troopers who die in the line of duty. The atheists allege that the state is violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Religious symbols like the cross were part of normal life for America’s Founding Fathers, who believed that morality should be nurtured by government, Eastman contends.

“The founders believed that without a moral citizenry, they would not be able to sustain a self-governing republic,” he said. “The notion that you could get a moral citizenry without reliance on religion was preposterous. That’s how dangerous I think this threat is.”

Patrick Novecosky

is based in Naples, Florida.