Removal of Park Cross: City Cave-in or Prudent Compromise?
Story and photos by Diane Andrews
The removal of the controversial 14-foot, white granite Latin cross that was the focal point of Memorial Cross Park at the intersection of Martin Ave. and De La Cruz Blvd., Santa Clara on Dec. 27, 2016, went unreported until Santa Clara resident Guy Sudano brought it to the attention of local media, including the Santa Clara WEEKLY.
The memorial cross was the subject of a U.S. District Court complaint against the City of Santa Clara, filed April 20, 2016, by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). At the heart of the now moot issue is the debate over whether the cross is a religious symbol or a historical marker.
The memorial cross, a gift to the City from the Santa Clara Lions Club, was placed at the then undeveloped site in 1953 to mark the location of the official second site of Mission Santa Clara de Asis, founded in 1777. The FFRF and its members, including Santa Clara resident Andrew DeFaria, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, argued that the cross was a religious symbol and thus, that displaying the cross on public property violated the separation of church and state.
In a Nov. 22, 2016, agenda report, then City Attorney Richard E. Nosky, Jr., stated that as early as 2005, the City had received complaints about the cross from organizations. Then in 2016, when faced with "the prospect of protracted litigation," the City reached an agreement with Santa Clara University (SCU) that would resolve the matter outside of court.
At the Nov. 22, 2016, City Council meeting, the Council unanimously approved Nosky's recommendation that the City transfer ownership of the cross to SCU, with the university bearing the cost of removing and transferring the cross to its campus for storage and eventual display. SCU also would share the cost of a commemorative park plaque to replace the cross.
City Councilmember Teresa O'Neill said that the City investigated other options that did not work out, mainly for legal reasons: Selling all or part of the park to a private party, doing a land swap with SCU and giving away part of the park so that the cross would be on private property.
"I went to the City Council meeting on November 22 to let them know that the Lion's Club was in support of moving the cross," said club president Beverly L. Silva. "We were happy that the City and the University came to an agreement to have the beautiful cross placed at the Jesuit institution, and it inspires us because it preserves and saves the cross."
"In my opinion, it was a good solution and helps the City in regards to a frivolous law suit that was lodged against them," said Silva.
"This cross issue was tough for me, as a practicing Catholic, but as I don't want my church in the government, I don't want the government in my church," said O'Neill. "With the deep and rich history of Santa Clara University, especially with the mission, it's the perfect location for the cross."
Other Santa Clara residents spoke up after the cross was moved. Sudano is upset with the City for giving away the cross, stating, "There was no news locally that this was going to be done–and the cross was suddenly gone."
"If people in a democratic country can have our beliefs and our history–it was a historical marker after all–removed by individuals who would have ALL religious symbols...removed from our society, then we are on a short road to what the Communists, the Nazis and the jihadists...perfected in their countries...." said Sudano.
"I don't have sympathy for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I think the cross should not have been moved because it has historical significance to the area. In a way, the threat of litigation is blackmail," said Lynn Wiese. "...I resent being controlled by a small organization whose sole purpose is to attack the foundation that this country is built on."
“It's part of our history, California history. The creation of the U.S. had to do with religious freedom–to practice or not practice religion," said Peggy Prior. "I would have preferred that they left the cross in the park. But if it was a matter of it going to litigation, this was a better solution. I don't think litigation is a wise use of money."
"The cross has been moved to Santa Clara University and the university paid all expenses related to the transfer," wrote Chris Shay, SCU Interim Vice President for Finance and Administration, in a Feb. 13 email, releasing the only comment SCU would make.
The SCU transfer expenses would have been minimal. Nosky stated at the Nov. 22 Council meeting that a contractor who wished to remain anonymous had volunteered to donate the equipment and labor to transfer the cross.
In a January FFRF (www.ffrf.org) news release, Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor stated, "Reason and the Constitution have prevailed." And the threat of litigation got the FFRF what it wanted.