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Ventura to Auction Off Hilltop Cross

The City Council acts to avoid a lawsuit. The high bidder would own the historic 24-foot structure and an acre around it in Grant Park.

August 02, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Acting under threat of a lawsuit, the Ventura City Council early Friday decided to auction off Grant Park's 24-foot cross, a wooden structure seen by some as a piece of history and by others as a religious symbol unsuited for public property.

The high bidder would get the cross and an acre around it. According to a contract approved by the council, the buyer also would have the right to keep the cross lighted and repair or replace it.

The unusual action is designed to stave off the suit and save the illuminated cross, which sits on a stone perch 800 feet above the city's downtown area. A cherished icon to many Ventura residents, it is the target of possible litigation from a group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The closed-bid auction, which was approved by a 5-2 vote, is to take place at the council's Sept. 22 meeting.

Three Ventura County residents took on the city in March, contending that the cross violates federal and state constitutional guarantees for the separation of church and state.

One of them, retired teacher Stan Kohls of Somis, said Friday that the prospective plaintiffs have not discussed their next step. Kohls said he was disappointed that the council had decided to let any new owner continue to keep the cross lighted at night.

Even if the cross and an acre surrounding it are transferred to private ownership, the lighting "gives the impression that the city of Ventura is advertising and promoting the Christian religion," said Kohls, who has described himself as "a nonbeliever."

In a hearing room overflowing with people who want the cross protected, city attorneys Thursday night said the auction strategy had protected a 103-foot cross on top of Mt. Davidson, the highest spot in San Francisco.

That cross, erected with public funds in 1936, was acquired by the Council of Armenian-American Organizations of Northern California after the city lost a lawsuit brought by a group called American Atheists. Voters in 1996 approved its sale by a 2-1 margin.

In the 1990s, San Diego County and the city of San Diego were defeated in lawsuits challenging mountaintop crosses on public land. Sales were then conducted, but were later attacked in court on procedural grounds.

At Thursday's meeting, many of the 45 speakers said they saw nothing wrong with the cross remaining on city property.

Some were angered by what they viewed as an anti-Christian agenda behind the threatened suit. Others tried to move the council with poetry, Bible verses and even fond recollections of the cross as a nightly rendezvous spot for teenage couples in '57 Chevys.

"That cross is just as much Ventura as the American flag is America," said Martin Hayes, a longtime Ventura resident.

Several speakers called for a public vote. Mayor Ray Di Guilio, though, said it would be "a cop-out" for council members to dodge a decision on the cross.

He also feared the divisiveness of a campaign on the issue, which already has triggered a rash of anti-Semitic fliers.

A number of people urged the city to fight any suit in court.

"I'm ready to defend the cross," Councilman Jim Monahan said. "If it's a lawsuit, so be it."

Other council members disagreed, arguing that the city could ill afford hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for what probably would be a lost cause.

An auction "would be the best option for preserving something we all hold dearly," Councilman Sandy Smith said.

Ventura's city attorneys and a consulting expert in constitutional law have predicted that the city would be doomed to defeat in a court battle.

City Atty. Bob Boehm pointed out precedents that would go against the city, especially among the judges sitting on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Boehm said that taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, as some have suggested, probably would be impossible. The court has declined to hear similar cases, he said. He also doubted that a court would be swayed by contentions that the cross was more historic than religious. Those arguments have fallen flat elsewhere, he said.

James McDermott, an attorney who said he was speaking on behalf of the San Buenaventura Mission, disagreed. McDermott said the cross was associated with Father Junipero Serra and the founding of the city.

"This is different from the cases in San Diego and San Francisco," he said. "This cultural history is what makes us unique and interesting."

Dating from 1942, the cross in Grant Park is the most recent of four on that spot, said assistant City Atty. Amy Albano. The first was built in the 1700s.

The council debated the issue for more than five hours. Approving the measure were Brian Brennan, Di Guilio, Jim Friedman, Carl Morehouse and Smith. Opposing it were Neil Andrews and Monahan.

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