Local atheist sues City of Santa Clara over “offensive” religious symbol
THE SANTA CLARA
May 5, 2016
Offended by a 14-foot white granite cross erected to honor the site of the second Santa Clara Mission, resident Andrew DeFaria decided to sue after years of “enduring unwelcome contact with this clear symbol of the Christian religion.”
With help from a national organization that advocates for the separation of church and state, local resident DeFaria filed a lawsuit against the City of Santa Clara claiming that a cross statue in Memorial Cross Park violates both the U.S. and California constitutions. According to the complaint filed on April 20, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has been seeking the cross’s removal since early 2012.
“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 the Christian religion through this symbolism,” the complaint stated, detailing DeFaria’s current routine to avoid the cross.
The cross statue was erected in 1953 when the Santa Clara Lions Club donated it to the city for the park. Formerly the site of a mission established by the Franciscans between 1779 and 1784, the cross serves as a historical marker. The park’s landscaping is also inspired by early mission horticulture and contains adobe walls.
According to a press release published by the FFRF, their organization has made multiple attempts in the last three years to have the cross removed from the park.
“In the past three years, on at least 12 occasions, Markert and other FFRF employees have followed up on the status of the cross’s removal. But the city’s only action to date has been to remove a sign reading ‘Memorial Cross Park,’” the release stated.
The plaintiffs are arguing that the cross violates the separation of church and state by the Establishment Clause of the first and fourteenth amendments of the Constitution as well as the establishment, no preference and no aid clauses of Articles I and XVI of the California Constitution. The complaint names Mayor Lisa Gillmor and the members of the city council as the defendants.
“It should not be necessary to sue over such an obvious and blatant establishment of religion,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in the press release. “We waited four years for the city to act in good faith and divest itself of this unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and were left with no recourse but to go to court.”
DeFaria and the FFRF are requesting that the cross no longer be displayed on public property and are also seeking damages and additional compensation to cover the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.
The complaint said that DeFaria “has been placed in the position of having to choose between suffering exposure to the offensive conduct by Defendants if he wants to use the public lands as any other citizen or being excluded from the public land in order to avoid the offensive display.”
Communication professor Lisa Davis, who has experience covering court cases and the legal system, said that the outcome of the case will likely rest on whether or not the the cross is designated as a historical landmark by either the state or federal government.
“If it has been designated a historic landmark, that’s the key to this case… if it is simply a cross in a park, that’s a little trickier,” Davis said.
While the cross has been described as a “historic marker,” records do not indicate that it is a registered historic landmark.
“The cross is a memorial to an important piece of history in the City of Santa Clara. Several community members have reached out and have been very supportive of the cross staying where it is and honoring the history of Santa Clara,” said city councilwoman Kathy Watanabe in an email.
The City of Santa Clara has not yet issued a formal response to the suit, but Mayor Lisa Gillmor and councilwoman Kathy Watanabe have spoken to local media. Gillmor said that the city will take the suit seriously.
“No one is being forced on their knees to pray there,” Santa Clara Lions Club president Ginger Stasi told the Mercury News.
Contact Jenni Sigl at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.