Legal battle over the Mount Soledad cross basis for new novel


By Joe Tash

To Robert LaCosta, the 24-year legal battle over the Mount Soledad cross includes many dramatic elements, from tension between generations, to disputes over the treatment of religious symbols, to respect for those who served in the military and died in battle.

After working on the story for 15 years, earlier this summer LaCosta published his novel about the long-running court case, called “Gamaliel’s Advice: Taking Down God.” The book was published by Thomas Nelson, and is available in bookstores and online.

LaCosta, 57, a resident of Albany, New York, is a frequent visitor to San Diego to visit his brother, Paul, and his family, who live in Scripps Ranch.

He has often enjoyed visiting the cross atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla to admire the view and the peaceful setting. When he found out that some in the community wanted to take it down, he said, “I was shocked.”

He said he understands the viewpoint of those who say they’re not against religious freedom, but simply oppose religious symbols on public land (when the legal battle began, the cross was on property owned by the city of San Diego).

“The trouble with that thinking is there are a lot of people who believe that particular symbol is intertwined with military sacrifice. So it’s not quite that simple,” LaCosta said in a telephone interview.

“It’s almost like two trees growing together, you cut one and you cut the other,” he said.

The original lawsuit was filed in 1989 by Philip Paulson, a Vietnam veteran and atheist. Veterans groups opposed efforts to take down the cross, and the case gained national attention as it worked its way through the courts. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, sending it back to the District Court in San Diego. A hearing is scheduled before U.S. District Judge Larry Burns on Oct. 15, said LaCosta.

LaCosta’s book focuses on two main characters, a World War II veteran who is determined to save the cross, and his granddaughter.

At times, the granddaughter — who is based on LaCosta’s niece, a Marine pilot — must endure teasing from her peers over her family’s involvement in the case, LaCosta said.

The book also has a Rancho Santa Fe connection, in the character of a young attorney who works for the city of San Diego and defends the veterans’ position. The attorney’s father bears a resemblance to Charles LiMandri, a Rancho Santa Fe attorney who has worked in court, with legislators and the political arena in an effort to save the cross, LaCosta said.

LiMandri said the book is a “good read,” and although LaCosta does take some “poetic license” with the story, he captured the essence of the legal case.

“I think he does a nice job kind of summarizing the long and involved history of the cross, particularly the litigation concerning the cross. The way he presents the litigation is accurate and understandable,” LiMandri said.

LiMandri said he expects the case to eventually come back before the U.S. Supreme Court, and it could be a springboard for deciding a range of similar cases, such as disputes over displays of nativity scenes at Christmas-time.

“I think they’re waiting for this case,” LiMandri said.

LaCosta has also written a screenplay of the novel, which he hopes to see made into a film.

One aspect of the story that fascinated LaCosta was the way a symbol that had been accepted by the community for so many years suddenly came under fire. The Mount Soledad cross was put up in 1954, and existed without controversy for more than three decades.

“That’s why a guy from New York got so entrenched in this thing,” he said.

San Diego’s large population of active-duty and retired military may be one reason why the fight has gone on so long, he said, and that in another place, the cross might have been taken down years ago.

“I’d like to see San Diego portrayed as city that stood its ground… it’s a great place that loves veterans,” LaCosta said.

The title of the book refers to Rabbi Gamaliel, a first-century teacher of Jewish law. In the New Testament, Gamaliel intervened on behalf of the apostles of Jesus when they had been seized and brought before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court.

“Gamaliel’s Advice” is LaCosta’s third book. Now a full-time writer, LaCosta worked for years in the hearing aid business, building up a chain of offices where clients were fitted with hearing devices. He has since sold the business.