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San Francisco loses appeal to keep cross on city land

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
SAN FRANCISCO, March 23 (JTA) — Jewish players in the fight to declare unconstitutional a cross on San Francisco’s Mount Davidson are rejoicing over the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the city’s appeal in the case. The decision ends a seven-year legal battle over whether San Francisco can own and maintain the 103-foot structure on city-owned land. It also sends the loud and clear message that “you can’t do it,” in the words of Fred Blum, the attorney representing the American Jewish Congress, a plaintiff in the case. What the city will do now to divest itself of the large religious symbol remains to be seen. A move is afoot to transfer the land to private hands.
Among proponents of that solution is the American Jewish Committee, which has proposed that a coalition of religious and secular groups raise money to buy the land. That suggestion, the AJCommittee said, was spurred by the often- acrimonious debate that has occurred about the cross since 1990, when a lawsuit was brought against the city and county of San Francisco by plaintiffs who included Jews. “Fundamentally, the intent of the AJCommittee was to see if we could possibly remove what was clearly friction, much of it aimed at Jews.” said Ernest Weiner, executive director of the local AJCommittee office. “To counter that, there had to be a solution that did not in any way remove the distinction between church and state.” That separation is at the heart of the high-profile case, whose plaintiffs included the AJCongress, American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and private citizens of various faiths. The Anti-Defamation League filed a friend-of-the-court brief. Plaintiffs claimed that the cross violates the state and federal constitutions’ mandate for separation of church and state, and demanded that the city either sell the property to private owners or remove the symbol. They argued that the symbol’s presence on taxpayer-supported property offends non-Christians. “The city of San Francisco said that the cross was a symbol of all San Francisco,” Blum said. “That tells me I can’t be considered a part of San Francisco.” On March 17, the Supreme Court refused to hear the city’s appeal of an August ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that deemed the cross’ placement on public property unconstitutional. That ruling, which overturned a 1992 District Court ruling in favor of the city, cited the cross’ lack of historical significance and the absence of other symbols nearby. The latter is a violation of the state’s no-preference clause, the court said. The Supreme Court move “is a victory for religious freedom,” said Margaret Crosby, staff attorney of the ACLU’s Northern California chapter.“The court has once again told government that it has no business promoting the symbols of favored religions.” Earlier this year, San Francisco’s Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board voted to bestow landmark status on the symbol, a move seen as a first step in efforts to keep the cross intact. That declaration must now be approved by the full San Francisco Planning Commission as well as by the board of supervisors.