- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

SAN DIEGO (AP) — After a 17-year legal battle between the city and a self-described atheist, a judge has ordered San Diego officials to remove a giant cross from a hilltop park or start paying $5,000 a day in fines.

Defying the order is something that cash-strapped San Diego can ill afford. Its pension fund is more than $1 billion in debt, the federal government is investigating, and there’s been talk of bankruptcy.

Still, Mayor Jerry Sanders said he would ask the city attorney to appeal.

U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. on Wednesday gave the city 90 days to comply with a 1991 injunction forbidding the cross on public property.

“It is now time, and perhaps long overdue,” the judge wrote.

The 29-foot-high cross was dedicated as a memorial to Korean War veterans in 1954 on a hilltop that towers over seaside La Jolla.

Philip Paulson, an atheist and Vietnam War veteran, has been challenging its placement on city-owned parkland since 1989. He declined comment on the ruling Wednesday, but his attorney, James McElroy, said he hoped city officials would finally back down.

The city has tried to sell the half-acre beneath the cross to a nonprofit association that maintains the surrounding memorial walls. But federal judges repeatedly have blocked the sale, saying the transactions were designed to favor a buyer who would keep the cross in place. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the city’s appeal in 2003.

A city-sponsored referendum asking permission from residents to sell the property failed in 2004. The next year, 75 percent of the voters approved a referendum to transfer the land to the federal government, but a Superior Court judge ruled that measure to be an “unconstitutional aid to religion.” The ruling has been appealed.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre said Wednesday that continuing the court battle would likely be futile, but Mr. Sanders said he would urge the city attorney to aggressively pursue a stay of the injunction.

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