Thursday, March 10, 2005 | Tuesday’s hearing at which the San Diego City Council voted 5-3 against transferring a portion of Mount Soledad and its controversial Christian cross to the National Park Service provided insight into the kind of sectarian strife our country’s Founding Fathers had hoped to avoid.
True, nobody beat each other up, except verbally, in the marathon hearing in which approximately 60 people expressed their views. But, feeling great pressure to conform from the cheering and clapping Christian crowd, this was a day in which many participants felt compelled to declare their religious allegiances.
City Attorney Michael Aguirre, who said transferring the cross site to the National Park Service would not solve the underlying constitutional issues, apparently felt an obligation to inform the crowd that he is a Roman Catholic, who once had been an altar boy. Councilman Ralph Inzunza also spoke of his Roman Catholic upbringing. In urging his colleagues to follow Aguirre’s recommendation, Councilman Scott Peters said that “as a Christian, the cross does not offend me, it should guide me.” But, he added, as a public official, he had taken an oath with his hand on the Bible to protect the Constitution.
During “public comment” time at the beginning of the meeting – supposedly reserved for the public to bring “non-agenda” items to the council’s attention – one Christian, complaining that the meeting had not begun with an invocation, won applause from the Golden Hall crowd for reciting “The Lord’s Prayer.”
During this same public comment period, a Muslim – who outraged many when he blamed President Bush for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – also recited his belief that “there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.”
When the cross issue actually came before the Council, a Christian speaker rejoined that not Allah, but Jesus Christ, was Lord. A Jewish opponent of the Mount Soledad Cross said that to her the cross erected in the 1950s bespoke the period when the La Jolla community had covenants and restrictions excluding Jews, blacks and other minorities from purchasing homes.
It was clear from the hearing that many people felt spiritual injury. Long after the cross is removed from Mount Soledad – if it really is, after a 15-year court fight – that pain will remain. Although the various forms of Christianity, in the aggregate, may comprise the largest part of the American population, numerous Christian speakers told of feeling like a beleaguered minority.
They told of their distress not only over the removal of the cross – at the base of which some of them had proposed or were planning to propose marriage – but also over their sense that values dear to them, symbolized by the cross, were being stripped from America.
One speaker complained that while courts insist on the separation of church and state, they do nothing to prevent the teaching of evolution (with which she disagrees) from permanent public occupancy in Balboa Park at the Museum of Man and at the Museum of Natural History. Another man contended that the same forces taking the cross also were pushing the Boy Scouts from public places because of that organization’s ban on homosexuality.
The leadership of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association – which in the past had led the efforts to keep the cross on the site – was at this hearing on the other side of the issue, saying maintaining the site as a veterans memorial should be the prime consideration. The courts had spoken against religious symbols on public property, they said. America has its systems of rules, and it was time to move on.
John Baca, a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his valor in Vietnam, was among those taking this position, also recalling publicly his feeling that while near death on a Vietnam battlefield that Jesus has held him in his arms. He was so conflicted by the issue he returned to his seat near tears.
Majorities? We are individuals tasked with doing what we believe is right. The American system of local, state and federal governments – with their separate judiciaries, legislatures and executives – are designed to assure that emotional issues, such as this, are decided in a deliberative, albeit time-consuming and cumbersome, process.
I say amen to that.
Donald H. Harrison is the former editor in chief of the San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage.