San Diego — Ronald Reagan had just left office, the Christian Coalition was new, "values" had yet to become a buzzword of American politics and six of the current U.S. Supreme Court justices had other jobs when an atheist sued the city of San Diego for permitting a giant cross in a public park.
Seventeen years later, the 29-foot concrete monument still crowns a hill over the Pacific, defended by the city's voters and members of Congress.
Now the Supreme Court has stepped in, and the case of the Mount Soledad cross could help determine under what circumstances religious symbols are permissible in public places.
The cross, dedicated in 1954 in honor of Korean War veterans, was erected by the Mount Soledad Memorial Foundation, a private, nonprofit group that also maintains the monument.
State and federal judges have ordered the cross removed, saying it represents an unconstitutional endorsement of one religion. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court blocked an order that the city take it down by Aug. 1, giving state and federal courts time to hear appeals this fall.
The high court has inched toward allowing religious symbols in public places if they have historical value or nonreligious meaning. A pair of 5-4 rulings on separate cases involving the Ten Commandments in 2005 established hazy guidelines on what is permissible: A display inside a Kentucky courthouse was deemed unconstitutional, while a 6-foot granite monument outside the Texas Capitol was fine.
Supporters of the Soledad cross call it the centerpiece of a war memorial that salutes veterans, not religion.