[JURIST] President Bush on Monday signed a bill [HR 5863 summary; PDF text] into law that transfers ownership of a 29-foot cross on Mount Soledad [backgrounder] in San Diego to the federal government. The cross, which was erected as a Korean War veterans memorial, has been the center of a religious dispute for 17 years [Paulson commentary] because Philip Paulson, a Vietnam veteran and atheist, challenged the cross as a government endorsement of religion prohibited under the First Amendment [text]. Paulson's attorney has already filed a lawsuit in federal court to void the transfer and have it declared unconstitutional.
The US House of Representatives approved the bill in July and the Senate approved the bill [JURIST reports] earlier this month. The legislation was designed to transfer the land from the city of San Diego to the Defense Department before an expected appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] this fall, thus permitting the First Amendment, rather than the California constitution [text], to control the issue of whether the monument is an impermissible government endorsement of religion. Federal law interpreting the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been more permissive toward religious displays on public property than the California constitution. Last month, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy ordered the continuation of a temporary stay [JURIST reports] against the removal of the monument pending the Ninth Circuit appeal. Kennedy issued the original stay after a district court ordered [Union-Tribune report] in May that the cross be removed by Aug. 2 and that the city be fined $5,000 a day if it was not based on the district court's finding that the cross constitutes a state endorsement of religion. AP has more. The San Diego Union-Tribune has local coverage.