Legal battle brewing over iconic Riverside cross

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Riverside city officials could decide Tuesday night to sell public land beneath an iconic Christian cross that’s stood over the city for half a century. 

The cross high atop the peak of Mount Rubidoux Park dates back to the 1900s, when the land’s original owner planted a wooden cross. It was replaced 60 years ago by a sturdier 45-foot cross of white concrete.

Hundreds of religious pilgrims hike to the top of the mountain each year and gather beneath its base to participate in the longest-running interfaith outdoor Easter sunrise service in the nation. That could change after a civil liberties group called Americans United for Separation Church and State threatened to sue the city of Riverside.

"We’re used to being very unpopular when we complain about various kinds of issues," says Americans United attorney Alex Luchenitser.

Luchenitser says the city has a couple of options: pull down the cross, or sell a portion of property beneath it to a private party in an open bidding process.

"If the cross is transferred to the private buyer through a truly neutral transaction that doesn’t favor private buyers that want to keep the cross up, that would dispel the message that the city is supporting one particular religion," says Luchenitser.

"That message of religious favoritism by the government is what creates the constitutional problem," he says.

The Riverside City Council will debate the potential sale of about half an acre of land beneath the cross at its next scheduled meeting. If the auction proceeds, bids are expected to start at around $10,000.

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