FFRF key in having Calif. cross taken off public land

After complaints by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a sustained campaign by local freethinking groups, a hilltop cross has been removed from public property in California — at least for now.

FFRF was first contacted in 2015 by members of the East Bay Atheists about a cross in the Albany Hill Park. The 20-foot cross had been put up in 1971 on private property by a member of the Lions Club. He later gave the club an easement (a legal right to access to the property) to continue to maintain and illuminate the cross. The land eventually ended up as a public park as part of a development deal, though still burdened with the Lions Club’s easement.

In 2016 and 2017, FFRF lodged complaints with the city of Albany about the cross’ presence on public property. The Albany City Council agreed and indicated a unanimous desire to take down the cross but needed to work out the property law issues with the Lion’s Club, which vehemently opposed the removal of the cross. The Lions Club sued in 2017, objecting to the city’s challenge of its easement. After several years of litigation, the case was settled in 2019 with the cross still up and the easement remaining in place, upheld by the courts as valid. FFRF filed an amicus brief during this litigation in support of the city before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The federal district court judge, affirmed by the 9th Circuit, had indicated that while the easement was valid, the cross was unconstitutional and the city needed to find a way to remedy the constitutional violation, suggesting eminent domain as one possible solution. In 2022, the city began the process to resolve the Establishment Clause violation by taking possession of the Lions Club’s easement via eminent domain so the cross could be finally taken down.

Finally, the city of Albany removed the cross from the property on June 8, following state court orders upholding a “prejudgment possession” in the eminent domain action. A trial set for mid-July will determine whether the eminent domain action is valid, with the possibility remaining that the city could have to return the cross to the property if it is found invalid. Meanwhile, the city has placed the cross in storage.

“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,” Albany Mayor Aaron Tiedemann has stated. “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.”

FFRF is very pleased by the city of Albany’s determined defense of secularism, as FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor told the local publication.

“It’s very gratifying and satisfying news to see the city do the right thing, even in a political climate that isn’t very supportive of separation of church and state,” Gaylor said. “Kudos to Albany and their governance for fighting this and being so adamant.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 41,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 5,000 members and two chapters in California. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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