Long-unnoticed San Rafael cross is drawing attention

But attorney Greg Brockbank of Greenbrae, a former chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union's Marin chapter, says the chapter's recently formed First Amendment committee has discussed its opposition to the symbol's presence on public land and may take action.

"It's very clear that this is wrong because it's on public land," he says. "The will is there. It's just [a matter of] the time and resources."

The Marin ACLU first took notice of the San Rafael cross following an August ruling in the Mount Davidson case.

Then a three-judge panel overturned a 1992 district court ruling in favor of the city of San Francisco, agreeing with plaintiffs that because the cross is widely viewed as a religious symbol, its presence on public land violates the federal and state constitutional separation of church and state.

More recently, however, San Francisco's Landmarks Preservation Board voted to bestow landmark status on the symbol. The vote is seen as a first step in efforts to keep the cross intact. However, the declaration must now be approved by the full San Francisco Planning Commission, as well as by the city's board of supervisors.

The history of the San Rafael cross is less clear than that of the Mount Davidson symbol.

The San Rafael symbol was built by churches in the 1930s, according to the Marin Independent Journal, which also reported that it is unclear whether or not the city owned the land at the time the symbol was constructed.

The land was part of either the Dollar or Boyd estates, both of which now belong to the city.

By all accounts, the Marin cross has stirred relatively little passion. A number of San Rafael residents interviewed by the Jewish Bulletin, including Rabbi Michael Barenbaum of Congregation Rodef Sholom, said they had never noticed it.

But a spokesman for the regional office of the American Jewish Congress, a plaintiff in the Mount Davidson case, said the organization has received complaints about the Marin symbol, which can be viewed from the streets of downtown San Rafael.

"We're keenly aware of the San Rafael cross, but to be real honest, we're just taking a breath after the Mount Davidson ruling," said Fred Blum, the attorney who represented the AJCongress in the long-standing suit against San Francisco.

"I don't think at this point we've decided what we're going to do about [the San Rafael cross], if anything."

Such action, said the ACLU's Brockbank, would likely start with a letter to the San Rafael City Council.

Blum added that should legal action be taken against the Marin cross, the Mount Davidson ruling — as well as the U.S. Supreme Court's 1994 refusal to review the banning of a cross in a San Diego public park — have established a solid precedent favoring the plaintiffs.

San Rafael City Attorney Gary Ragghianti, however, disagreed.

"I always view with great suspicion lawyers who say they have strong cases," he said. "Nothing's simple."

Ragghianti said he believes there is no "reasonable comparison" between the Mount Davidson cross and the San Rafael Hill cross.

The San Francisco cross is maintained by city employees, and a copper box inside its foundation holds such religious items as rocks from the Garden of Gethsemane and a jug of water from the Jordan River. In addition, people gather there for a sunrise service at Easter.

In contrast, city employees do not maintain the San Rafael cross, and according to Ragghianti it is rarely used in religious services.

"They just cannot be compared," he said. "They're both crosses, but that's where their similarities end."

The issue of crosses on public land has become a hot one.

Jon Carroll, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about the issue following August's Mount Davidson ruling.

"The cross is a huge piece of concrete; its only power is the power you give it," he wrote. "It may seem to you to be a symbol of oppression, but it could equally be a symbol of compassion…you can give the cross power or you can retain the power for yourself."

But those who champion the separation of church and state say crosses on public land cause more than personal discomfort for those of another faith. More to the point, they say, such symbols create the appearance of government preference for one religion over another. For that reason, many Jews are just as antagonized by the display of menorahs on public property as they are by crosses.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.