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August 15, 2006
That Old Rugged -- And Now Federal -- Cross

The struggle to keep a landmark San Diego cross on public land took a new turn on Monday, as George Bush signed a bill making the land under the monument federal territory. That removes one particular legal threat to the 29-foot-tall cross, long visible for miles to Southern Californians, but brings up new challenges on the federal level:

President Bush on Monday signed a law transferring a 29-foot-tall Latin cross high on a hill in San Diego to the federal government, stepping into a long-running dispute over the separation of church and state.

Mr. Bush, in the latest unusual action designed to save the Mount Soledad cross, in the La Jolla district, sided firmly with cross supporters who acknowledge that it is the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity but contend that it forms part of a secular war memorial.

An atheist, Philip K. Paulson, has fought the cross, built in 1954, for 17 years in federal and state courts. Mr. Paulson says the memorial was built only after he protested the cross and filed suit, and is a ruse to cover its intent to promote Christianity.

The legislation that Mr. Bush signed uses eminent domain to transfer the memorial land, which includes the cross and six concentric walls holding nearly 2,000 plaques honoring war veterans, from city ownership to the federal government. The private group that built the cross, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, will continue to maintain it.

The order brings an end to the pursuit of Paulson's efforts in California courts. State jurists no longer have jurisdiction on the property, and with Congress making its intent known in the legislation, portends a difficult path for opponents of the landmark. It might make the case come to a conclusion more quickly, however, as federal issues have always been in play in this controversy. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy issued a stay against the destruction of the cross recently, and the court will likely have its say soon.

Efforts by Congress and the White House to save the monument may raise some eyebrows as well. Conservatives supporting the existence of the cross have little use for exercises in eminent domain, especially since Kelo. This particular transfer seems ready-made for controversy anyway, given that it obviously intended to wrest control of a state issue away from California, which hardly fits within the federalist viewpoint.

Now the government owns a cross, and one can expect the usual suspects to come out of the woodwork to protest this "endorsement" of religion. Once again, people mistake freedom of religion for freedom from religion, the latter of which is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. That people get so offended by a religious symbol in the public square testifies to the power of symbology less than it does to the spoiled brattiness of American politics. This cross does no one any harm, and has sat on the mountaintop for over five decades without giving any distress to anyone except those who go out of their way to be offended.

This problem will choke American cultural intercourse. We cannot possibly live in a world where people are guaranteed free speech while at the same time guaranteed a lack of offense in public. Carving out rules of political correctness in order to make sure no one has their feelings hurt provides the start of those good intentions that wind up paving a road to ... well, someone might be reading this in a state or federal office, so I'm probably not allowed to say where. Just think of the cross on the mountaintop and consider the other possibilities.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 15, 2006 5:32 AM

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