WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has passed a bill that could potentially resolve the long-running church-state conflict featuring San Diego’s Mount Soledad veterans memorial and cross.
The Senate passed the bill that sets defense policy by a vote of 89-11 on Friday. The legislation contains a provision from Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. that authorizes the defense secretary to essentially sell the land containing the veterans memorial and a 43-foot cross to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association Inc., a private group that already maintains the site.
The House passed the bill last week, so now it goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Federal courts have consistently ruled that the cross is an unconstitutional effort by the government to endorse a religion. A judge has ordered the cross’s removal.
It’s unclear whether Hunter’s legislation will end the litigation, however. Before the federal government took possession of the land in 2006, the city of San Diego tried to sell it to the same private group on two occasions, but neither attempt passed muster in the courts because the judges found that the sales process aided a sectarian purpose in violation of the California Constitution.
“This is a significant development in the decades-long fight against efforts to dismantle the memorial,” said Hunter, whose district covers an area east of the site. “The assumption remains that legal challenges will continue, but at least now, this one veterans memorial, which is an important piece of the San Diego community, can no longer be perceived as a government endorsement of religion.”
Local attorney James McElroy represents Steve Trunk, an atheist and Vietnam Veteran who sued the federal government to get the cross removed. McElroy said he is ready to talk about what it would take to settle the case. Whether the lawsuit continues will depend upon negotiations between the federal government and the association now maintaining the memorial, he said.
The government’s failure to sell the land at a reasonable value or to give up full control of the memorial and cross would be signals that the government is still violating the Constitution.
“I’m not saying a settlement can happen, but it’s at least something worth talking about,” McElroy said.
The federal government has owned the land since 2006, when Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr., the current congressman’s father, authored legislation transferring ownership from the city of San Diego. At the time, the city faced fines of $5,000 each day if it did not remove the cross.