SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Officials in Santa Clara, California have removed a 14-foot cross from a public park in response to a lawsuit filed by a prominent professing atheist organization.
The granite cross had been displayed in what is known as Memorial Cross Park for the past 64 years after being donated by the local chapter of the Lions Club.
But in 2012, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote to then-Mayor Jamie Matthews to assert that the cross violated both the federal and state Constitutions in that it was a government endorsement of religion.
Matthews advised that the city looked forward “to resolving this matter in an expeditious and responsible manner,” but FFRF became dissatisfied when the only change that was made was the removal of a sign announcing the area as Memorial Cross Park.
Therefore, last April, FFRF filed suit. Included in the legal challenge was local resident Andrew DeFaria, who said that he has avoided the park so he does not have to look at the cross.
“As a non-believer in any religion, he finds the cross on public land objectionable. As a consequence, he avoids the public park and even goes so far as to avoid the street on which the park and cross are located in order to avoid the offensive encounter with the City’s endorsement of … religion through this symbolism,” the lawsuit outlined.
“Mr. DeFaria does not want to have to choose to be exposed to objectionable religious endorsement by Defendants, who are part of his local government and elected officials, in order to have access to public land in his city,” it said.
FFRF asked that the courts declare the display a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the No Preference Clause of the California Constitution, and that it issue an injunction prohibiting the city from maintaining the cross whether in the park or elsewhere.
In response to the suit, Santa Clara officials began working on a settlement agreement, and decided to donate the cross to Santa Clara University, a Roman Catholic institution. The cross at issue had originally been erected as a memorial to an 18-century Spanish Catholic mission in the area.
Last week, it came to FFRF’s attention that the cross had been officially removed.
“It’s a very rational way to begin the New Year—sending a strong message of support of the wall of separation between religion and government,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a statement on Tuesday. “Reason and the Constitution have prevailed.”
But not all believe that the city should have removed the display.
“I find it offensive that the city leaders don’t have the will to maintain a rich symbol of their city’s history, but take path of least resistance—and less legal expense—of caving to this lawsuit,” one commenter wrote. “The city should have settled by offering counseling to the individual who allegedly found the cross so offensive. … [I]t is very likely that this had nothing to do with the individual actually being offended, but was operating from anti-Christian animus.”