Cross Pulled From 'Memorial Cross' Public Park After Atheist Group Threatens Lawsuit

Jan 23, 2017 12:39 PM EST

A large, 14-foot tall Latin, granite cross inside a public park in Santa Clara, Calif., was removed after receiving a legal complaint from a local man and the nation's largest atheist and agnostics group, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ironically, the cross was located in Memorial Cross Park.

Santa Clara officials removed the large cross last week, after receiving a notice of legal action, by donating it to Santa Clara University, a Jesuit academic institution.

In 1953, the Santa Clara Lion's Club donated the cross to Santa Clara as a way to honor the site of the second Spanish Catholic mission established in the city in 1777. The city owned and maintained the cross since that time. Santa Clara bills itself as "The Mission City."  

Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement released Tuesday that the decision of Santa Clara's officials to remove the cross from public property meant "reason and the Constitution have prevailed."

"It's a very rational way to begin the New Year, sending a strong message of support of the wall of separation between religion and government," Gaylor stated.

FFRF representatives were informed about the cross being on the public park grounds in 2012, reports Fox News, and they sent a letter to the city demanding its removal, only to have the cross remain where it had been since 1953. City officials did, however, remove the park sign reading "Memorial Cross Park," according to foundation sources.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert first complained in April 2012 to the city's then-mayor, Jamie Matthews. City representatives indicated two months later they looked forward "to resolving this matter in an expeditious and responsible manner." In the past three years, on at least 12 occasions, Markert and other FFRF employees said they followed up on the status of the cross's removal, and saw no action taken.

FFRF members contended the decision of city officials to accept the cross and its subsequent display and maintenance "amounts to the advancement of religion," specifically Christianity.

Last April, FFRF attorneys sued the city in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, on behalf of a local man named Andrew DeFaria.

DeFaria, who lives in Santa Clara, said, "As a nonbeliever in any religion, I find the cross on public land objectionable." DeFaria said he avoided the park, and even the street on which the park is located, so he wouldn't have to encounter his city's endorsement of the Christian religion.

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

FFRF is a national association of freethinkers with 23,700 members, including more than 3,100 in California.