Steven Cuevas / KPCC
Erected over 50 years, the towering Christian cross atop Riverside’s Mount Rubidoux is now the target of a possible civil liberties lawsuit over separation of church and state.
Three Riverside non-profit groups have teamed up to bid on an iconic cross at the center of a legal battle over its display on public land.
The cross in question sits atop a peak in Mt. Rubidoux Park. It was placed there in 1907 when Mission Inn founder Frank Miller owned the property. The Miller family donated the land to the city as a public park about 50 years later.
Two months ago, Riverside officials received a letter from a civil liberties group that threatened to sue the city if the cross remained in place. It argued that its location in a public park violates the Constitution’s separation of church and state.
At a public workshop Tuesday afternoon, the Friend of Mount Rubidoux, the Mission Inn Foundation, and the Riverside Land Conservancy will try to convince the Riverside City Council that a public bid is the best way to save the cross.
“If we’re the only bidder on the property, it would go for the minimum bid,” said David St. Pierre, president of the Mission Inn Foundation and Museum. “Or if we have other people we will be bidding against, it could go up to some number that we’re not aware of.”
The groups’ efforts are following in the footsteps of one that saved a cross in the city of Ventura.
“We are raising funds in excess of about $200,000 to $250,000 because we want to buy an endowment to actually maintain the property and perpetuities,” said St. Pierre.
The city has said the minimum bid would start at $10,000.
“I don’t think there’s one person that I’ve heard of that has any thoughts of removing the cross,” explained St. Pierre. “Everything we’ve heard is people are ready to step up and write checks.”
St. Pierre said the groups have yet to reach their fundraising goal, but they believe they will.
The Riverside City Council could take four actions:
- It can choose to do nothing and ignore the group that threatens to sue.
- Go to court and fight the group so the cross remains on the park.
- It can choose to take the cross down.
- It can choose to sell the property.
The Riverside City Council will vote on the issue later this month.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that threatens to sue, was not available to comment.
"We're hopfeul that no further action will be necessary," explained Alex Luchemitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "We've been in close communications with [Riverside's] city attorneys about what it would take to resolve this matter in a constitutional way."
Luchemitser said his group is supportive of a public bid as a solution, but ideally would prefer the cross to be taken down. The civil liberties group is confident the city will make the right decision. If Riverside officials decide to do nothing and keep the cross, the civil liberties group maintains it would move forward with litgation.