Another City Has a Taxpayer-Funded Cross Controversy

On Tuesday night, the Riverside City Council (in California) voted to postpone any decision on the Mount Rubidoux cross until January.

The backstory is this: There has been a cross atop Mount Rubidoux ever since 1907. In 1963, the wooden cross was replaced with a concrete/steel one. So the current incarnation of the cross has been up on the hill for nearly 50 years. The city has owned the land since 1955.

Now, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is threatening to file a lawsuit if the city doesn’t take it down — they argue that the cross violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The city now has a couple of options: Take down the cross (which would be easy to do) or sell the land to a private bidder (which seems like the most complicated way to fix an easy problem). They could also fight the lawsuit, but it seems like a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money.

As you might expect, Christians are going ballistic over this because they see this as an anti-Christian group trying to take down their Jesus… oh, and by the way, they add, this cross is totally not Christian at all.

Father Josiah Trenham of St. Andrew Orthodox Church suggested another option.

“I brought a little show and tell,” said Trenham, holding up a set of chains. “This is a chain. If the cross goes, you’ll have to take it with this poor body chained to it also!”

Todd Starnes at FOX News radio shares the story of someone who thinks it has to stay because it has personal significance for him… which has nothing to do with how the law works:

When Austin Thompson decided to pop the big question to his girlfriend — he knew there was only one place in Riverside that would work — the top of Mount Rubidoux — under a giant historic cross.

“It was significant to us because we hiked the trail a lot during our dating relationship,” the 28-year-old told Fox News. “The cross was significant to us because of our faith.”

“It’s been up there for over a hundred years, so why is this happening now,” Thompson wondered. “Anything that has to do with Jesus Christ or our Christian faith — people are always going to have a problem.”

This is what I never get. If the Christians just argued the “tradition” aspect of the cross, they might at least be able to convince some judges the cross isn’t religious. Instead, they pretend to be martyrs, thinking they’re soldiers fighting in a culture war — proving to the rest of us that this is all about preserving the influence of their religious, not about preserving a tradition. It’s like they’re giving away the secret to the very people whose job it is to show that this cross is all about promoting Christianity. I’m fine with it. I just don’t get why they’re so ignorant about it.

It gives the AU argument so much more support:

Alex Luchenipser, with Americans United, told Fox News that the cross violates the so-called “separation of church and state.”

“It sends a message that Christianity is the preferred religion of the city and that Christianity is favored above all other religions,” he said. “It makes people who aren’t Christians feel like they are outsiders — like they are second-class citizens.”

He’s right, of course. The cross is the city’s way of pitching itself as pro-Christian and anti-everybody else. It has no business being on taxpayer-funded property. I’m sure there are plenty of churches that would give the cross a fine home. But this isn’t about that. This is all about government promotion of Christianity.

And it needs to be stopped.

Hopefully, the city will do the right thing come January.

(via Atheist Lutheran)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • TCC

    I don’t get the sentimental attachment angle at all. The building my wife and I were married in is no longer used as a church (members of the church bought it and have converted it into living space), but I wouldn’t fight to have it preserved as a church.

    And to the people that think this is just about Christianity – while I was traveling on I-44 between Springfield, MO, and my home for Skepticon, I saw a number of huge crosses up, and I would bet good money that no one has ever tried to file suit against the churches that have erected them. The problem is Christian privilege, not Christian expression.

  • Ida Know

    “So-called” separation of church and state?

  • MargueriteF

    Two words: “Fox News.”

  • m6wg4bxw

    Wikipedia says, “The annual Easter Sunrise service at the top of Mt. Rubidoux is the nation’s oldest continual non-denominational outdoor Easter service The 100th anniversary of the event was held April 12, 2009.”

    “Each December, a second celebration involving Mt. Rubidoux takes place. A 2½-mile procession from Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine to the top of Mount Rubidoux promotes awareness of Juan Diego’s walk up Tepeyac hill, in 1531, where he reportedly saw a Marian apparition known as Our Lady of Guadalupe . The 2007 procession attracted 2,500 people.”

  • MargueriteF

    I mentioned in my blog post that the long-celebrated Easter Sunrise service undercuts the idea that this isn’t a Christian monument. The December procession underscores the fact that most people see this, quite correctly, as a religious symbol.

  • Riley O’Neill

    Hello everyone, 

    My name is Riley O’Neill, I am 28 years old, I am an atheist and I have lived in Riverside California my entire life.  I have probably been up Mt. Rubidoux 500 times throughout my life and regularly go up about once or twice a week now.  I came out at the city council meeting for keeping the cross in place not for any religious reason but because of the historical context of this cross.   Mt. Rubidoux was originally owned by Riverside Pioneer Frank Miller, he built the cross as a monument to Father Serra who was a very important person in early California history.  President Taft commemorated the Serra Monument in 1909.  Frank Miller and the Miller family owned Mt. Rubidoux until the 1955 when he gifted it to the City of Riverside as a park with a 30 year condition that the Cross remain in place.  The City has been the steward of the park and has keep everything well maintained and despite the agreement expiring in 1985 they have kept the cross up as there was no pressure to remove it and even the city’s non-Christians such as myself

    It is very easy for someone to observe the cross simply as a religious symbol if they do not take into consideration the history of the monument.   This monument does have a share of religious supporters, however this monument is also understood as a historic monument.  Religious monuments can most definitely have a legitimate historical context as this one does.   As an atheist I see the Serra Monument in a proper historical context and can observe that this was important to many of the early settlers of my community even if I no longer believe in the religion which they did.   There are many other churches and religious icons on public property which are maintained to to their historical importance.  Example.  Bodie California is an old Ghost Town near the Nevada border.  It is now a state park, one of the structures on the park is the old church.  It would be absurd to tear down the old church because it is a religious building on public property as it is a historically significant building and was a very important institution to those who lived in Bodie.  Tearing it down would be like tearing pages out of a history book.   Likewise there are two California Missions which are State of California parks.  True to their historical authenticity they keep the crosses on site and to eliminate them would be to eliminate a piece of California history.  No one in their right mind would advocate bulldozing the Missions which are on state parks even though they contain churches and crosses. 

    I am an atheist.  I view the cross at the top of the mountain as a historical monument and a link to the past.  I view it the same way I view the statues outside of our Downtown Riverside County Courthouse which depict the Roman Goddess Justitia or the Greek goddess Themis.  I don’t feel that a historic cross on the mountain is the government endorsing religion much like I don’t feel that the greek statues are the justice system endorsing a 2300 year old Greek/Roman religion.  I understand that both of these symbols play a part in our heritage.  I don’t believe in the divinity of either symbol.   Likewise there are Indian cave paintings and other monuments which played an important and often religious role in tribal society which should not be removed, even though they are religious icons. 

    A successful removal of historic religious icons over the last 20 years would be the Taliban blowing up the Buddha statues in Afghanistan.  Those statues were religious icons.  They were on public land.  The taliban felt that the religious icons were offensive and needed to be destroyed.  The result was a tragic loss of a piece of human and cultural history.  

    Our history as humans involves people who were religious and believed in various things.  These people built monuments as icons of their religious beliefs.  Some of these monuments later became public parks in nations where people have very different values regarding religion but this does not in any way negate their history.  I may be an atheist, but I had ancestors who were not atheists and I have no intention of tearing down monuments they built.  The reality is that our society is filled with symbols of the past, and many of these symbols are religious in their origin. 

  • eonL5

    Well written/argued, Riley. I’m undecided at the moment, but you make a good case for the Historical perspective.

    – proud to be another O’Neill

  • MargueriteF

    Thank you, Riley. Fox News didn’t explain the historical aspects of the cross, merely mentioned them without explanation. You’ve done so quite well, and have made a much more compelling argument for keeping the cross. There is a cross in Virginia Beach (my hometown) with historical underpinnings, and I wouldn’t advocate removing it, either. (Virginia Beach also has a large Neptune statue displayed on the beach, and I doubt anyone would seriously advocate its removal as a religious object, which underscores part of your argument.)

    There is a fine line with regards to the public display of religious symbols, and it’s not always obvious which side is right, IMHO.  But providing information, as you did, helps people make up their minds. The hysterical rantings of Fox News do little to clarify such situations, unfortunately.

  • rlrose63

    I would think selling the land the cross is on would be the easiest way to solve it and would add money to the city coffers.  That way, it would be preserved (still an eyesore, but still there) and they could still do their Zombie Jesus Day services there to continue their privileged tradition.  Win-Win-Win, the best of all outcomes.  But instead, they will probably waste a cartload of money fighting what they shouldn’t fight.

  • William C. Walker

     ” Religious  controversies are always productive of more acrimony & irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”          George Washington, in letter to Sir Edw. Newenham  Jun 2, 1792