Thursday, October 15, 2009
The city of Monterey is on a costly collision course with First Amendment activists over the 20-foot redwood cross that stood on Del Monte Beach until it was chopped down by vandals in September.
Last week, the City Council voted unanimously to restore the cross – with a twist. It will go up only if members of the public raise a $50,000 war chest to defend the city against an almost inevitable lawsuit.
The decision came after City Manager Fred Meurer issued a blunt warning about the difficulty of maintaining city services in a down economy.
Still, Mayor Chuck Della Sala said the cross is a potent symbol of the city’s identity. “We pride ourselves on maintaining our history, and we are not going to have a vandal have his way,” Della Sala said. “It is not the intent of the council to look at it from a religious standpoint.”
The cross commemorates the arrival of Spanish explorers to the Monterey Bay in 1769. Gaspar de Portola and Father Juan Crespi had trekked north from San Diego, but were forced to turn back for lack of supplies. The men erected a large cross near Del Monte Beach and another near the Carmel River as a landmark for the expedition’s supply ships, according to Monterey Museum Manager and historian Jim Conway.
Conway contends the marker is primarily historical, not religious, but Christian right groups have offered to join the fray with free legal help, City Attorney Deborah Mall said.
And, regardless of the marker’s historical merit, a giant Christian cross on city land sends a message to those of other faiths that they don’t quite belong, said Michelle Welsh, a Pacific Grove attorney who represents the American Civil Liberties Union.
It was déjà vu all over again for Welsh at last week’s council meeting. She won a similar lawsuit over a City Hall Nativity scene nearly 20 years ago. A court OK’d the creche only if the display included secular symbols of the season of equal size. The city finally removed it, and was ordered to pay the ACLU $40,000 in attorney’s fees, Welsh said.
This time around, the city’s legal defense fund idea, Welsh said, is “some indication it knows it’s not doing the right thing.”
But the fundraising effort could buy time to work on an out-of-court settlement, said City Attorney Deborah Mall, an option that she and Welsh both favor. For the past year, after the ACLU received a complaint about the cross, Welsh said she and Mall had discussed potential compromises like moving the cross to private property or revamping the monument so it doesn’t look like a Christian symbol. Both said they hope the talks continue.
But Mall said cross supporters could force the issue into court anyway, if a judge agrees that private citizens have standing to sue. They could ask for what’s known as declaratory relief, or a court ruling on the issue before a full-on trial, Mall said.
Former mayor Peter Coniglio has agreed to spearhead fundraising for the city’s legal defense.