Visitors gather at the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, California.

Story highlights

The Obama administration says it will fight attempts to remove a cross from a war memorial

The cross sits atop a memorial on Mount Soledad in San Diego

It was erected in 1954 to honor Korean War veterans

It has been the subject of two decades of legal wrangling

CNN  — 

The United States will defend against efforts to remove a giant cross atop a war memorial in Southern California over claims it violates the constitutional separation of church and state, according to a petition filed this week with the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s the latest legal salvo in the decades-long battle over the cross on the memorial at Mount Soledad in San Diego. The legal battle has pitted veterans and caretakers of the memorial against the city and those who say it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The court filing by the Department of Justice on Wednesday comes after the Mount Soledad Memorial Association petitioned the Supreme Court to settle, once and for all, the constitutional question about the cross.

“…The United States remains fully committed to preserving the Mount Soledad cross as an appropriate memorial to our nation’s veterans,” the Justice Department petition said.

Long legal battle

The legal wrangling follows a ruling by a U.S. district judge in December that ordered the cross be taken down from the memorial. But the judge stayed his ruling while the case was appealed.

In the petition filed this week, lawyers for the Obama administration warned if the district court reinstated the order that the cross be removed, they would take the issue to the highest court in the nation.

The cross was erected in 1954 in honor of Korean War veterans and has been the subject of near constant judicial back-and-forth since 1989, when two Vietnam War veterans filed suit saying it violated the California Constitution’s “No Preference” clause.

Since that first lawsuit, the city of San Diego twice tried selling the property beneath the cross to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, only to be stopped by the courts.

In 2004, the parties involved reached an agreement that would have moved the cross to a nearby church, but two congressmen intervened and inserted a rider into the 2005 omnibus budget bill that designated the property a national veterans’ memorial and authorized the federal government to accept the donation of the property.

This led to more fights and more court filings.

Congress intervenes

The fight became so contentious that Congress attempted in 2006 to solve the problem by taking control of the land and designating it a national memorial. Three congressmen pushed through a bill calling for the government to seize the property by eminent domain – calling it “a historically significant war memorial.” The federal government took possession in August of that year.

But that was followed by more lawsuits, including one filed by Vietnam veterans Steve Trunk and now-deceased Philip K. Paulson and another filed by the ACLU on behalf of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States. The suits sought to stop the transfer of property to the government, saying the Christian cross atop the memorial violated the Establishment Clause that prohibits the government from taking a position on one religion over another.

The district court has since consolidated the cases.