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RELIGION / JOHN DART : Mt. McGroarty Sunrise Service Untouched by Legal Questions

April 18, 1992|JOHN DART

The annual Easter sunrise service atop Mt. McGroarty near Sunland-Tujunga is a relative unknown among the dozens of other such Southern California springtime rituals, but the sponsors don't mind their sleeper status.

At the Hollywood Bowl, aging celebrities and some of Los Angeles' clerical finest greet Easter for nationwide audiences. And in Riverside, the Mt. Rubidoux rites, which date to 1909, reign as the mother of the region's dawn services.

Yet, the Mt. McGroarty service, with its 67th renewal on Sunday, is only five years younger than the Bowl event. Its view of the sun rising over the San Gabriel Mountains has to rank the program among the more stunning outdoor celebrations for California Christendom.

But a low profile--or as hidden as you can be at 2,000 feet--is fine with the event's organizers as long as the legality of crosses on public land is being questioned.

The gathering point for the Mt. McGroarty service is at a large, permanent cross that stands on parkland--the same circumstances as at two sunrise service settings in the San Diego area, Mt. Helix near La Mesa and Mt. Soledad in La Jolla.

Last December, a federal judge in San Diego ruled that those crosses violate state constitutional provisions requiring the separation of church and state and have to be removed from public land. The ruling was prompted by a suit filed by a coalition of civil libertarians and atheists.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco has set a May 5 hearing date in the case. In the meantime, anticipating that their appeal will be unsuccessful, the city and county of San Diego have taken steps to enable the crosses to remain by transferring to private organizations the small parcels of land where they stand.

Mt. McGroarty's reinforced concrete cross, which is at least 20 feet tall and is mounted on a rock and masonry stand, is not quite as visible as the San Diego area landmarks.

"You have to know where to look to see it," said Sandy Miller, an electrical contractor in Tujunga. "I'm surprised it's still there; it's on city property."

For many years, Miller has chaired the Mt. McGroarty Easter Sunrise Service as a part of Sunland-Tujunga Kiwanis Club activities. Kiwanis Clubs sponsor numerous Easter sunrise services in conjunction with ministerial associations between Morro Rock near San Luis Obispo and Point Loma near San Diego.

The constitutionality of the Mt. McGroarty cross apparently has not been an issue to date, and Kiwanians have not seriously discussed the subject, according to club members on the Easter service committee.

But the annual services haven't always been trouble-free.

In 1975, the McGroarty cross was torn down by vandals on the Thursday before Easter. With help from the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, workers built a temporary wooden cross the next day. Vandals then pulled down that cross and threw it down a hill. Volunteers put it back up, however, in time for the Easter morning service.

Days later, three boys were caught and charged with the vandalism and their parents were ordered by a court to pay for restoring the heavy, permanent cross.

"The cross now has a little bend in it," Miller said. "It was bent when the city put it back up."

This morning, Kiwanis members will spruce up the sunrise service area and begin trucking chairs, a public address system, a portable generator and temporary outhouses to the site.

"We paint the cross if it needs it, and we shine a light on the cross all night," said Jerry Friedman, a member of the sunrise service committee.

Unlike the Hollywood Bowl and Mt. Rubidoux sunrise services, which often bring in a well-known Christian figure to deliver the sermon, the Mt. McGroarty service is strictly a local pride event featuring clergy and lay people from Sunland-Tujunga churches.

The cross is actually on Mt. San Ysidro in the Verdugo Mountains, Miller said. But the peak is popularly known as Mt. McGroarty because it is believed that the land was donated by the celebrated California writer, John Steven McGroarty.

McGroarty is best known for writing "The Mission Play," which popularized a romantic version of the history of the missions. McGroarty later wrote a Sunday newspaper column and was named poet laureate of California in 1933.

McGroarty's former home, now a cultural art center, is on the northern slope of the peak.

Old newspaper clippings indicate that a cross was first erected on the peak in 1923 and was dedicated in a ceremony led by a Catholic priest. The sunrise service, which evidently began in 1926, has usually been dominated by Protestants, however.

The sermon Sunday will be given by the Rev. Kenneth Monson, who recently retired as pastor of Community Christian Church in Tujunga.

Monson said Easter sunrise crowds have numbered between 400 and 500 in recent years--including some worshipers on horseback--but only 100 turned out three years ago when it rained before dawn.

The hourlong service starts at 5:30 a.m., but volunteers begin arriving as early as 4 a.m. transporting worshipers up a narrow access road from the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Hillhaven Avenue in Sunland. Parking atop Mt. McGroarty is limited.


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