A giant cross on top of San Diego's Mount Soledad that memorializes war veterans does not violate the separation of Church and State, a federal judge has ruled.
The 29-foot cross was erected by the Mount Soledad Memorial Association in 1954 to honor Korean War veterans.
A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in the late 1980s sought to remove the cross. The plaintiff was atheist war veteran Philip Paulson, who argued that the cross was a religious symbol and that its display on public land was unconstitutional.
The decision handed down Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns resolved the 20-year legal controversy, which has been visited by both the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress.
In his 36-page opinion, Burns ruled that the memorial cross held more secular value in its message to honor war veterans than religious significance.
"The court finds the memorial at Mt. Soledad, including its Latin cross, communicates the primarily non-religious messages of military service, death, and sacrifice," Burns wrote in his decision. "As such, despite its location on public land, the memorial is constitutional."
The original cross was erected in 1913 but replaced over the years when damaged. The current concrete cross is the centerpiece of Mt. Soledad Veteran Memorial, surrounded by six concentric walls of granite plaques honoring war veterans.
Supporters of the monument had fought for the famed cross to be recognized for its historic significance. But in May 2006 a federal judge ruled in favor of the cross's removal and imposed a $5,000 fine for each day the monument remained standing after a 90-day deadline. The Supreme Court blocked the ruling, however, allowing Congress time to transfer the cross to Federal ownership under a law signed by President Bush in August.
In his decision Tuesday, Burns noted that the cross is also displayed "along with numerous purely secular symbols in an overall context that reinforces its secular message."
William Kellogg, president of the nonprofit Mount Soledad Memorial Association, told the Union-Tribune of San Diego he was pleased with the judge's ruling.
"That makes me feel terrific because that truly is what it's all about, honoring veterans," Kellogg said. "Our mission has been to communicate that to the public for so many years, so I think the language there is very appropriate."
The ACLU said they may appeal the decision.