Lions Club fights to restore giant cross in California park after atheist group pressured removal

Silhouette of a cross against the sky during sunset.
Silhouette of a cross against the sky during sunset. | Getty images

A local Lions Club is continuing efforts to restore a 28-foot-tall cross in a public park in California after the city took the monument down.

The Pacific Justice Institute announced that it is helping to represent the Albany Lions Club in its effort to reinstate a cross in Albany, a town on the east shore of San Francisco Bay.

The cross was erected in Easter 1971 on a hill that was private property at the time. 

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Made of lighted steel and plexiglass, the Lion's Club lit up the cross every year for Christmas and Easter and has also hosted Easter sunrise services, weddings, memorial services and baby dedications.

According to the PJI, no one objected to the cross until 2016, when an atheist activist organization successfully lobbied the Albany City Council to make an effort to remove the cross.

"The First Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals and private entities from such blatant state hostility to those wishing to express symbols of faith and hope," said PJI President Brad Dacus. "We at PJI are committed to defending such constitutionally protected expression."

In 2016, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state and often pressures local governments and school districts to end any perceived endorsement of religion, sent a complaint to Albany city officials saying they had been made aware of the cross by the group East Bay Atheists.

Even as the private property had been transferred to a public park, the Lions Club had been given an easement that gave the group a legal right to access the property to continue to maintain the cross, the legal group contends. 

The city leadership agreed to try to remove the cross, and the Lions Club opposed removal and filed a complaint in 2017. A 2019 settlement allowed the cross to stand.

FFRF filed an amicus brief in 2019 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and a federal district judge later ruled that the cross was unconstitutional.

In 2022, the city took control of the Lions Club's easement via eminent domain, opening the door for the cross to be removed in June last year.

In January, an Alameda County Superior Court Judge upheld the cross' removal, arguing that the Lions Club cannot validly assert a First Amendment claim on the matter.

"The Lions Club has not shown that its organizational purpose, its mission, involves promoting religious activities," stated the ruling, as quoted by PJI.

"The Lions Club cites no authority for the proposition that it has a right to speech [display of a symbol which sends the message of God's love] in a manner that violates the Establishment Clause."

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in American Legion v. American Humanist Association that a 40-foot cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, meant to honor World War I soldiers, did not have to be removed from public property.

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