Suspect sought in vandalism of Santa Clara cross

SANTA CLARA (KTVU) -- Police in Santa Clara were searching Friday for the person responsible for spraying a large Christian cross with graffiti, the same religious monument that has been at the center of a lawsuit over religious rights.

City officials and police said they are unsure if the vandalism at Memorial Cross Park is a random act or if it resulted from the legal challenge filed by an atheist and a Wisconsin-based group that want to keep religion out of government. 

The Santa Clara man who filed the lawsuit said the cross, a 14-foot, granite marker, violates the First Amendment. The cross marks the site of an 18th century Spanish Catholic mission. City officials have not yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit. The city attorney is scheduled to discuss the matter during a closed-door meeting next Tuesday.

The cross has stood inside the Santa Clara park since the 1950s, when the Santa Clara Lion's Club donated it. Under the cover of darkness, someone tagged it with graffiti.

"I think it's really bad of people, it's no good and there's no respect," said Luis Poot of Santa Clara.

Poot said the cross gave him a sense of peace and he said he had no idea why police were asking for surveillance video from his gas station until he saw the graffiti. City officials spent several hours working to remove the spray paint. 

"It's something new," said Santa Clara Acting City Manager Rajeev Batra. "It doesn't happen often."

In April, a Santa Clara atheist and the Freedom from Religion Foundation challenged the city's right to have the statue in a public park. The foundation is a non-profit group based in Madison, Wisc., which advocates for the separation of church and state.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim the cross is a "blatant religious symbol" and their members have had "unwanted" and "unwelcome" contact with it. The plaintiffs want it removed from public land and are suing the city of Santa Clara, the mayor and council members. 

The city has launched a probe into who could be behind the act of vandalism.

"I really cannot comment," said Batra. "I don't want to pass judgement on that. It could be just a random act."

"That's so mean to do because it's God," said Carmen Castaneda of Santa Clara. "It stands for God. Whoever did that has no religion."

Castaneda enjoys looking at the cross. She had no idea about the lawsuit, which she described as unnecessary.

"Why would they file a lawsuit?" said Castaneda. "I mean it doesn't take anything away from them. If they don't want to see it they should go through other streets. I think it's ridiculous."

By KTVU reporter Azenith Smith.