UPDATE: Atheist group, which wants cross memorial removed, condemns vandalism of it

by Gregory Tomlin |

(KTVU San Francisco/Screen Capture)

SANTA CLARA (Christian Examiner) – The same atheist group that wants a 70-year-old cross memorial removed from a Santa Clara, California park has condemned the recent vandalizing of the monument.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which has joined Santa Clara resident Andrew DeFaria in suing the city to have the 14-foot tall cross removed, claims its supporters had nothing to do with the vandals who spray painted graffiti on the cross on May 13. The paint has since been removed.

DeFaria claims he is "offended" by the presence of the cross and being exposed to the "objectionable religious endorsement" by the city. He also claims he has avoided the area because of the cross.

It turns believers into insiders and non-believers or non-Christians into outsiders who are even expected to avoid using city streets and parks that inappropriately endorse religion.
- FFRF on cross memorial

In a statement May 16, FFRF's Annie Laurie Gaylor, who serves as co-president of the Wisconsin-based group, said it "goes without saying that FFRF opposes any defacement of property."

"We do not resort to criminal actions to fight unconstitutional incursions of religion in government. We have the law on our side and that's why we're in federal court," Gaylor said in a statement.

She also said she and her group "resent such unfounded allegations" as those made by some people interviewed in a local television news story about the vandalism. A woman in the story suggested the perpetrator of the vandalism should "just stay away" and "maybe had no religion," which Gaylor has taken as a universal condemnation of atheists everywhere.

"This reaction underscores the harm of uniting religion (in this case, Christianity) with government. ... It turns believers into insiders and non-believers or non-Christians into outsiders who are even expected to avoid using city streets and parks that inappropriately endorse religion," Gaylor said.

The cross was erected in the park in 1953 to commemorate the establishment of the Catholic mission in Santa Clara in 1777. DeFaria, who describes himself as a life-long atheist, presumably passed the cross many dozens of times before his hurt feelings led him to sue.

The city might have a better than average chance of winning the case. Similar monuments have already survived legal challenge because they are associated with historical events and personas recognized as having contributed to the culture of a certain area.

For example, FFRF recently lost a similar case when it sued the Knights of Columbus for a cross constructed on public land in Montana.

A group calling itself The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property – a Catholic advocacy group – has launched a petition drive to encourage city leaders to leave the cross in place.

In the petition letter, addressed to Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmore, TFP claims the cross is a "memorial of the Catholic Franciscan missions since the 18th century."

"For more than 200 years, the Cross is America's heritage of its past and a beacon for its future. We cannot allow America's Christian history to disappear in public," the petition said.