Responding to concerns raised by Americans United, the city council of Ventura, Calif., has voted 5-2 to sell a parcel of land in a public park that contains a 24-foot cross.
Stan Kohls, an Americans United member in the area, first raised the issue last spring. Kohls, a semi-retired special education teacher, alerted Americans United to the presence of the cross and volunteered to be a plaintiff if litigation were necessary.
"I've always felt the government has no business pushing religion," Kohls said. "As a non-believer myself, I see it as not fair, not right and illegal."
The origins of the cross are not known. Some historians say crosses in the area date back only to 1912, when a women's club and the Ventura Chamber of Commerce arranged for the religious symbol. At night, the cross, which sits on a hilltop, is illuminated and is visible for miles.
Federal appeals courts have ruled against crosses on government-owned property in other parts of California. In light of those rulings, city officials told Americans United that they wanted to resolve the matter without litigation.
Under the arrangement, the city will sell the cross and some land around it to a private entity. The cross will be sold through an auction process, and the new owner will no longer be able to light it, though ground lighting at the base may still be used. The new owner must also take steps to add historical markers to the site, making it clear that the display is not intended to be state-promoted religion.
The board voted in late July to cement the deal. Hundreds of resident packed the meeting, and several blasted the council for agreeing to the compromise.
Mayor Ray DiGuilio insisted that the city had done the right thing.
"We did everything we could to avoid a costly and ugly legal battle," DiGuilio told the Los Angeles Times. "A suit would have exacerbated the situation tremendously."
Vince Chhabria, a San Francisco attorney who worked with Americans United and the would-be plaintiffs, hailed the agreement.
"The manner in which this was resolved should be viewed as a model for other communities throughout the nation," he said.