Philip Paulson, the atheist and Vietnam War veteran who waged a 17-year legal battle to remove a 29-foot cross from government land atop Mount Soledad, died of cancer earlier today.

Paulson, 59, was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer several months ago and was given four months to a year to live, James McElroy, his attorney said.

With McElroy’s help, Paulson successfully argued that the presence of a religious symbol on city land violates the California Constitution. His case has been a centerpiece of civic debate for nearly two decades and several related challenges are currently pending in the state and federal courts.

Here’s what McElroy wrote about his friend and client in an e-mail message:

For his efforts Phil was ostracized and treated with scorn and disrespect by many powerful people in our community and across the country as well. I suspect many of these same people, especially those that were quick to demean him, lack half of the courage that Phil had. Death threats and hate mail were his constant companions over these last 17 years but Phil always managed to maintain his healthy sense of humor.

Those who make great personal sacrifice in the fight to protect our precious rights and liberties and in so doing expose themselves to scorn and ridicule by the majority, often turn out to be our heroes. Rosa Parks comes to mind.

In an interview, McElroy said many people believe Paulson was consumed by the legal battle but said that wasn’t true. Paulson, who had no children and led a private life due to the hostility engendered by the case, was passionate about the constitution and politically active on a number of different issues, McElroy said.

“This was probably made a bigger part of his life than he wanted it to be by others and the refusal of the government to accept a court’s ruling,” McElroy said.

Despite his prognosis, the news of Paulson’s passing came as a shock.

“I thought he was doing fine and might be doing better,” McElroy said. “The last thing I heard from Phil was he was in remission.”

Earlier this month, Paulson traveled to San Francisco, where he was awarded the first ever “Atheist in a Foxhole” award by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Paulson fell ill with flu like symptoms shortly after returning from that trip, McElroy said.

Paulson’s death is not expected to impact any of the three currently pending cases, McElroy said. Steve Trunk, also an atheist and Vietnam War veteran, has already been added as a plaintiff.

“We anticipated this when we got Phil’s diagnosis,” McElroy said.


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