The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sued the Mission City to have a 14-foot cross removed from Memorial Cross Park, where it was erected in 1953 to mark the site where the second Mission Santa Clara de Asis stood from 1779 to 1784. The cross is a gift of the Santa Clara Lions Club.
The FFRF argues in its lawsuit, filed against the City April 20 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, that having the cross on public land is a violation of the separation of church and state.
Memorial Cross Park, which no longer has a sign, is a .4-acre corner park located at the intersection of Martin Ave. and De La Cruz Blvd. in an industrial section of Santa Clara.
It has a Franciscan mission atmosphere, with adobe brick walls on two sides and plantings of roses, gold lantana and lavender. The only amenities are six concrete benches facing the white granite cross, which is surrounded by eight olive trees. Seeming like anachronisms, airplanes take off and land at San Jose Mineta Airport, directly behind the park.
“Santa Clara’s park is not for Christians only. We’re not a Christian nation, but what other message could it possibly send to have a cross in the park?” said FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor by phone May 6.
“The city can’t endorse religion in this fashion, history or no history. The government can’t take sides on religion.”
Santa Clara resident Andrew DeFaria, an atheist who lives about three miles from the park, is the second plaintiff in the lawsuit, which states that he objects to the City’s maintenance of “such a blatant religious symbol,” indicating “its preference for the Christian religion.”
“It’s a clear violation of the 1st amendment. Nothing more needs to be said,” wrote DeFaria in an email.
The issue dates back to April 2012 when the FFRF sent a letter of complaint to the City, claiming that the cross was “on unconstitutional footing.” FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert said that the letter was sent in response to the complaints of multiple FFRF members from Santa Clara and San Jose. DeFaria was not one of the original complainants.
A July 24, 2012, letter from the City Attorney’s office to the FFRF, stated that the matter would be discussed with the City Council on August 21. Options then to be evaluated included dismantling the cross, moving it, transferring the land on which the cross sits and changing the park name.
In its lawsuit, the FFRF states that it contacted the city 12 times between 2012 and 2016, trying unsuccessfully to resolve the matter. The lawsuit can be found on the FFRF website (www.ffrf.org).
Santa Clara City Attorney Richard E. Nosky, Jr., said on May 9 that he would discuss the issue with the Mayor and City Council, who are all named as defendants, at a closed session May 16 and that it would probably take several sessions to make a decision. The city has 60 days from when the lawsuit was actually served to respond.
“It’s a matter of whether the City wants a pragmatic solution to avoid litigation or to litigate. There are several options to explore,” said Nosky.
“The city has acknowledged the problem but is dragging its feet to finalize a solution. It must divest itself of an edifice of Christianity. It could auction the cross to get money for the taxpayers to improve the park,” said Gaylor.