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A Giant Christian Cross was finally removed from California's Albany Hill Park
Five decades after the cross went up, a court will decide who owns the property it sits upon
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For over 50 years now, since 1971, a giant 28-foot illuminated Christian cross has sat atop Albany Hill Park in California.
The local Lions Club erected it on what was, at the time, private property, but it soon became land owned by the city—that’s a complicated story in its own right—with the exception of the land with the cross on it, which the owners granted to the Lions Club by way of an “easement.” In essence, the owners said they were giving the city ownership of the land, but the Lions Club could keep maintaining the cross.
As you can imagine, all of this has become contentious in recent years. In 2015, the East Bay Atheists called for the cross to come down. The city, citing safety concerns like fire hazards, had the electrical power to the cross shut down in 2016, a move the Lions Club claimed was “part of a harassment campaign.”
The city also argued that the land, including the bit with the cross, was all public property, which meant the cross had to come down because it was a potential violation of the Establishment Clause. A federal judge even sided with the city in 2018 on that very issue:
Those of the Christian faith may dislike some conclusions in this order. If the tables were turned, however, and a Star of David or Star and Crescent instead blazed from the top of Albany Hill, how would they feel? The undersigned judge is confident that the fair-minded will see the problem. Please remember that religious faith is precious in our country, a most personal and individual choice. Our governments have no business sponsoring one or the other. That is the law under our First Amendment.
An appellate court later upheld that decision.
But if the Lions Club owned that parcel of land, it was a different story.
In 2022, the Albany City Council voted to take control of the parcel of land with the cross through eminent domain. (They agreed to pay the Lions Club for the acquisition.)
The question now is whether that move is legal.
A trial beginning in mid-July will decide if the city has the right to take over the land and how much money they’ll have to pay the Lions Club. The Lions Club, meanwhile, doesn’t want to give up anything.
While everyone waits for the trial to begin, the city went ahead earlier this month and removed the cross. They could’ve done this in October, but they seem to have delayed the move until after Easter. They also wanted to avoid a separate legal battle with church/state separation groups which say the city is promoting Christianity by leaving the cross up.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation told the city it needed to take down “an exclusionary symbol of one religion.” FFRF added that the easement only allowed the Lions Club access to the cross for maintenance and that it would become moot if the cross came down.
What’s somewhat incredible in this case is that city officials have not only taken down the cross, they’ve argued it’s better for the city. Just look at how Mayor Aaron Tiedemann defended secularism in an interview with the East Bay Times:
"The city has actually put its money where its mouth is, and our city looks a little bit more accepting now in a way that we think is consistent with our values," Mayor Aaron Tiedemann said in an interview. "For the small local group of people that really want to see the cross stay, when you've had such privilege for so long, losing it feels like being oppressed. That's going to be an adjustment for folks, but I think we will all get used to it, and I think it's a real benefit."
It’s a great response and he’s absolutely right. The cross is currently sitting in storage somewhere, its whereabouts known only to city officials. If the city loses the case, the cross would have to go back up, but they were given permission by the courts to take down the cross until a decision is reached.
It’s also telling that defenders of the cross don’t have any strong legal arguments on their side. They just fall back on tradition and acting like Christianity is some kind of default faith.
… Rather than spend potentially up to $1 million in public money for the land, [Kevin Pope, president of the Albany Lions Club,] said people who don't like the cross should simply not look at it.
The city's "excuse for using eminent domain is they want an unencumbered park, which to me is ridiculous. I think they're wasting the city's money, and I think they just gave the city of Albany a black eye," Pope said. "There's a lot of people who love it being up there — a lot of people go up there and pray and have church services. It's sacred ground to us, and taking it down shows their intolerance toward Christian values."
Neutrality is not intolerance. Just because Christians are used to getting special treatment doesn’t make their privilege a foregone conclusion. And if this were a Muslim or Satanic symbol on the hill, there’s no doubt Christians would never be satisfied if the city told them to just “not look at it.”
There’s no reason this cross can’t be moved to a local church. If they Lions Club really cared about people praying and having church services, they could always move the cross somewhere uncontroversial. But they don’t actually give a damn about any of that. They see the giant cross as a symbol of Christian supremacy, which is why they want their faith—and never any other faith—represented on public property.
The cross never should have gone up in the first place. Despite that mistake, however, there’s no reason it needs to stay up. Hopefully this trial will settled that issue once and for all.
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