Riverside city council debates possible sale of iconic Mt. Rubidoux cross

The towering Christian cross atop Riverside’s Mount Rubidoux.
The towering Christian cross atop Riverside’s Mount Rubidoux.
Steven Cuevas / KPCC

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Riverside is the latest California city to get pulled into a legal battle over the display of Christian cross on public land.

This one stands about 45 feet high and sits high atop the peaks of a Riverside park.  But a pending lawsuit could force the city council to sell the land beneath the cross.

At a jam-packed Riverside city council hearing, dozens of people spoke passionately in defense of the Mt. Rubidoux cross – as if the city wanted to sell it.

“That is not the case," explained Councilman Mike Gardner. “This comes about because we received a letter that threatens litigation.”

A civil liberties group sent the letter. It claims Riverside is violating the constitutional separation of church and state by letting the cross stand on city land. The cross in question sits atop the peak of Mt. Rubidoux Park. The land and the cross were donated to the city 60 years ago by a resident and original Mission Inn owner Frank Miller.

Justin Nelson is among those who say it’s time that the cross comes down.

“That cross towering above downtown Riverside sends only one message: that the city of Riverside is first and foremost for Christians," Nelson said. "And that if anyone wishes to live here, they do so only if they keep their heads down and not disrupt the status quo. I ask you: don’t sell the land; tear down the cross.”

That’s one option. Here’s another: The city could sell the cross to a public or private buyer. It could also auction a sliver of property beneath it to a private party in the hope that the buyer would keep the cross where it is. Patricia Bullsworth voiced her support by quoting Frank Miller himself.

“The other day I stood with Mr. Huntington at the cross on Mt. Rubidoux and said: 'I like that cross. Men cannot look upon it without thinking. It doesn’t say men cannot look at it without thinking about religion.'”

Bullsworth added: “It just says thinking. It’s not so much about God or religion as it is about history and this great city that we all live in and love.”

Other supporters want the city to fight what they call a “bully lawsuit.” Father Josiah Trenham of St. Andrew Orthodox Church suggested another option.

“I brought a little show and tell," said Trenham, holding up a set of chains. "This is a chain. If the cross goes, you’ll have to take it with this poor body chained to it also!”

In the end, the members of the city council postponed a decision until they get to hear from more Riverside residents.