Cross spray-painted with graffiti after atheists demand it be torn down

by Gregory Tomlin |

(KTVU San Francisco/Screen Capture)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (Christian Examiner) – Police in Santa Clara, Calif., are searching for vandals who spray painted graffiti on a large granite cross in a city park on May 13.

Ironically, the cross is the same 14-foot-tall monument at the center of a lawsuit filed in federal court asking for its removal on the grounds that its presence violates the separation of church and state.

According to San Francisco's KTVU, officials with the city don't know if the vandalism is connected to the case. It well could be, however.

In April, Santa Clara resident Andrew DeFaria and the atheist Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisc., sued the city claiming DeFaria was "offended" at the idea of being "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."

"He has been placed in the position of having to choose between exposure to the offensive conduct 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."

According to the complaint, the city pledged to work with FFRF and DeFaria by establishing public hearings on the matter, but no date was ever set for the city council to hear comments on the matter. The group then sued.

The cross in the park commemorates the founding of the first Catholic mission in the area in 1777. It was placed in Cross Memorial Park in 1953, during the height of the Cold War and at the close of the conflict in Korea. It is still on public property, however, and that fact – FFRF believes – gives them an advantage.

FFRF's Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, said when the atheist group filed the suit in April, they believed the case could be won easily.

"It should not be necessary to sue over such an obvious and blatant establishment of religion," Gaylor said. "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."

There is good news for supporters of the cross, though.

FFRF has lost a similar case already. In 2013, a federal judge found that a similar cross, built on public land in Montana by the Knights of Columbus, could remain because the cross possessed symbolism beyond the religious. It also represented bravery, sacrifice and other qualities.

Officials in Santa Clara have yet to file a response to the lawsuit and have already spent the time, effort and money to remove the spray paint from the cross. Many members of the community expressed shock the cross was vandalized.

Rajeev Batra, city manager for Santa Clark, told the KTVU that the type of vandalism that took place at the park is rare.

"It's something new," Batra said. "It doesn't happen often."

As for DeFaria, FFRF – which is among the most litigious atheist groups in the country – claims he now has to avoid the public park because the offense to his non-religious sensibilities is so great.