A legal dispute involving three dozen religious statues high on a hill overlooking this valley could force San Bernardino County to relinquish control of the 3.5-acre park where the statues have stood for more than 30 years.
In a unanimous decision July 31, the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the bigger-than-life white concrete statues and tableaux depicting the life of Jesus violate the separation of church and state clauses of the California and U. S. constitutions.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors could decide in the next few days whether to appeal the ruling that directs the county to get rid of the park, located in this desert community 125 miles east of Los Angeles
Attorney David Llewellyn Jr., who represented San Bernardino County in the case before the federal appeals court, filed a petition this week seeking a rehearing.
If the decision stands, Llewellyn says it could affect religious landmarks nationwide, including at least 40 in California. Until 1987, the site of the statues was known as Desert Christ Park. That year, the American Civil Liberties Union first filed its suit to remove it from county ownership. Soon after that, the county changed the name to Antone Martin Memorial Park in honor of the sculptor who created the statues.
Citing the name change and the fact that the statues were not identified as religious figures, U. S. District Judge Judge David W. Williams in Los Angeles ruled two years ago that the park could remain in county ownership.
He compared it to a museum that seeks to preserve part of a town's history. A sign posted in the park since then reads: "This park was created by sculptor Antone Martin as a shrine of peace. Upon his death the statues and land were willed to the county as a memorial to the sculptor and for the artistic and cultural appreciation of those who may want to visit here. The park does not constitute an endorsement by the county of any religion or religious doctrine."
This did not satisfy the plaintiffs in the case--a Christian, a Jew, two atheists and an agnostic. They challenged the constitutionality of the county owning and maintaining with public funds a park full of statues with biblical themes.
"The law says no money shall be used for any church. This is a public park. Everything points to a religious affiliation no matter how you slice it," said Jean Bertolette, 73, who is among a number of vocal community activists demanding that the county divest itself of the park.
Bertolette is a retired teacher and an ordained Protestant minister who once served as pastor of the Chapel of Golden Rule Church in Yucca Valley.
"Until we filed our lawsuit the park was known as Desert Christ Park," said ACLU attorney Carol Sobel. "It was advertised as depicting the life of Christ. This isn't something the ACLU is reading into the Constitution. It's there in plain language."
"The ACLU's suit is ridiculous," maintains Marshall Roe, 66, a local resident and retired aerospace engineer. "I suppose the next thing will be a suit to force the Veteran's Administration to give up its cemeteries because there are crosses and Stars of David on the graves."
The controversy has been the talk of the town for four years.
Sculptor Martin was an aircraft worker living in Inglewood when he created his first religious figure in his back yard--a 10-foot-high, 4-ton statue of Christ in a sitting position preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He wanted to place it on the rim of the Grand Canyon but the National Park Service turned him down.
The Rev. Eddie Garver, at the time pastor of the Yucca Valley Community Church, suggested that Martin put the statue on a hill overlooking Yucca Valley. The sculptor erected the statue in time for Easter services in 1951. That was the beginning of Desert Christ Park.
Martin moved to Yucca Valley and spent the last 10 years of his life carving his religious scenes among the Joshua trees--statues of Christ instructing the 12 Apostles, praying at Gethsemane, a three-story-high, 125-ton tableau of the Last Supper and much more.
The sculptor lived on the site in a trailer. Local people helped him mix his materials and provided him with food. Service clubs bought his supplies.
The 3.5 acres where Martin carved and placed his statues were donated to the sculptor by Ted Jurling and Fred Storey, local businessmen. When Martin died at the age of 74 in 1961, he willed the land and statues to San Bernardino County to be set aside as a park. The will contained a provision that requires the land to revert back to the original owners if the county were to abandon the park.
When the ACLU filed its suit, residents formed the Save Our Park Committee, raising $12,000 to help the county fight the case.
"This park has never been a religious shrine," said Bill Agnew, 64, a founder of the committee. "There have never been any worship services here. You won't find any signs proclaiming Christianity to be the true religion."
Dave Richmond, 54, one of the seven members of the unincorporated town's Municipal Advisory Council, said the council is recommending that the Board of Supervisors continue to pursue the matter and appeal the 9th Circuit Court's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ACLU's Sobel noted that the suit is "not requesting the statues be removed or destroyed. To the contrary. It just should not be a county park."
She said there are areas where accommodation for religion is accepted, for example, a painting of the "Last Supper" in a public museum. "But if San Bernardino were to hang the "Last Supper" in one of its buildings where it was the only painting, and it was put up in a way to send a message, then that would be a violation."