In Memoriam: Philip Paulson

State/Church Hero Philip Paulson, 59

Philip Paulson, 59, who was honored as the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s premiere “Atheist in Foxhole” awardee at its national conference in early October, died on Oct. 25.

Phil, who had terminal liver cancer, had been told in July he had four months to live. Despite his illness and weekly chemotherapy, Phil was resolved not to cancel his appearance at the conference. The 6-foot-5 Vietnam War veteran with a booming voice came on like gangbusters at the Foundation’s San Francisco convention.

The Foundation had honored Phil both as an atheist vet and for his determined resolve in a 17-year court battle to remove the 43-foot-tall Mt. Soledad cross from public land in San Diego. He had won rulings in his favor both in 1991 and 2005, despite numerous legal machinations and roadblocks. This summer, Pres. Bush signed legislation declaring the Mt. Soledad cross and land under it a federal “war memorial.” That action is being litigated.

Phil refused interviews about the lawsuit, but had granted one to the San Diego Union Tribune to be run in the event of his death or the resolution of his lawsuit. The newspaper ran a memorial by Kelly Thornton on Oct. 26, noting Phil “became one of the county’s most reviled residents,” yet few realized Phil was a vet himself. After-the-fact attempts to turn the Christian display into a “war monument” excluded Phil and other nonreligious or nonChristian vets.

After Phil’s terminal illness was diagnosed, Steve Trunk, another San Diego-area vet and atheist, became party to the complicated lawsuit, so it continues. Steve, a longtime Foundation Board member, had dreamed up the idea of an “atheists in foxholes” award, nominated Phil to receive the first one, and introduced Phil at the convention. Steve told the Union Tribune:

“Whether walking point in a Vietnamese jungle, defending a woman’s right to choose, or exercising his duty as a citizen forcing the government to honor the Constitution, Phil personified what it means to be an American. I am honored and humbled to have known him.”

Phil also had broken his embargo in order to be interviewed on FFRF’s Freethought Radio show. Phil spoke candidly about the lawsuit, and his views as a dying atheist on life and death.

Phil grew up in Clayton, Wis., in a Lutheran family. He had enlisted at age 18 to take his brother’s place in the draft. He served as a combat paratrooper, light-weapons infantryman and point man, and was a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Association chapter. Always skeptical of religious claims, he became more skeptical during the Battle of Dak To, one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. A sociology of religion class in college clinched his atheism.

Phil had a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also earned Masters in Management of Information Systems and Public Administration. He taught undergraduate and graduate students computer information technology and electronic business courses in San Diego.

His memorial service will be held on Nov. 18.

Freedom From Religion Foundation