No Cross Getting Cross over the Cross

Crosses on public property have been common in America throughout history, and only recently have they been characterized as offensive as part of the cleansing of all things Christian from the public square. In the early 1930s, San Francisco erected a 103-foot-high by 39-foot-wide cross on city land atop Mt. Davidson, the area's highest point. The monument was dedicated in an Easter Sunday ceremony in which President Franklin Roosevelt participated by way of a telegram. The cross became a focal point for Easter Sunday sunrise services for years to come and was also illuminated during the Christmas season. In 1990 a federal district court denied a petition by atheists to remove the cross, but in 1996 the infamous Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Carpenter v. San Francisco, reversed the decision, holding that the sectarian religious monument could not be maintained on city property. Margaret Crosby, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, was elated. "The Court's order is a victory for religious freedom," she said in a press release. "The Court has once again told government that it has no business promoting the symbols of favored religions. In San Francisco, this means that children and adults of all faiths will be able to enjoy Mt. Davidson Park without feeling like second-class citizens."

Resourceful city and county officials sought to comply with the court's ruling by selling the cross and the one-third-acre tract surrounding it to a private entity at auction. This move, clearly dissociating any government from the ongoing display of the cross, didn't satisfy certain antiChristian groups, whose persistent objections demonstrated concerns far beyond church and state. For example, the state director for the California American Atheists said, "If a religious group wants to purchase the cross and put it on their own land, fine. But it makes no sense to have a sliver of phony 'private' land surrounded by a public park in order to keep a religious monument which is clearly unconstitutional." City voters nevertheless approved the auction sale and gave the $26,000 proceeds to the city's Recreation and Parks Department to be used for other parks. Two atheists filed suit shortly thereafter, complaining that the sale was "fixed" to ensure that a religious group would acquire title to the cross and property so that the display could be preserved. In 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court refused to invalidate the sale, so the cross remains.

Another cross has also caused major controversy. This one is six feet tall and is on a rock that sits thirty feet above the Mojave National Preserve in California. A group of World War I veterans built the cross as a memorial in 1934, where it has stood since. The memorial is about twenty feet off a two-lane highway where an estimated twenty cars pass every day. According to local resident Wanda Sandoz, "You don't even see it unless you are looking up at the right place." But that was apparently immaterial to the ACLU, which filed a suit against the National Park Service in March 2001, citing the First Amendment Establishment Clause. The federal district judge concurred and ordered that the cross be covered with a brown canvas, to the dismay of local veterans who consider the cross a historic monument. The veterans acknowledge that it is a Christian symbol, but say its primary thrust is not religious, but to honor the American war dead. Local U.S. Congressman Jerry Lewis proposed a land swap between the federal government and private landowners, hoping to eliminate the church/state issue by converting the half-acre surrounding the cross to private land. A number of groups oppose the bill, which could suggest that their opposition to the presence of the cross is motivated more by hostility to the Christian symbol than by fidelity to Establishment Clause concerns.

Not all government officials are as resolute in preserving their rights to display the cross, as shown by an incident involving the State Fair Park in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A thirty-foot-high cross that had been on display at the state fairgrounds for almost forty years without incident all of a sudden discomfited certain people. Jim Worrell of Oklahoma City sent City Manager Jim Couch a letter on December 19, 2002, complaining that the cross violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against "state-sponsored religion" and threatening to file suit if it wasn't removed. Without so much as a whimper of protest, the city took the cross down and put it into storage. Eventually, said Couch, the cross would be declared surplus material and given away to a church or local organization.

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