Since March, Sedona residents may have noticed the absence of the illuminated cross atop Airport Mesa.
Maintained by the Central Arizona Masonic Lodge No. 14 for the last 56 years, the cross was removed following the Masons’ 2016 decision to vacate the adjacent lodge building members had built in 1964.
Local Masons had first erected a rough wooden cross covered with greenery in celebration of Easter in 1959. They went on to build the Shrine of the Red Rocks in 1961, dedicated by then-U.S. Sen. Barry M. Goldwater [R-Ariz.].
Since then, it has been the site of interfaith Easter sunrise services and occasionally rented to other Christian groups to conduct services and revivals. The cross contained fluorescent lights, illuminating it at night and could be seen throughout West Sedona.
Adjacent was a star, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem, only turned on during the Christmas season.
Sedona Airport Authority General Manager Amanda Shankland said that part of the lease stipulated if the Masons left, they take everything that was their property, which included the contents of the lodge building, as well as the cross and the star.
She said the Masons’ initial plan was to simply relocate it to the new Cottonwood lodge. However, there was no room for it at the lodge nor interest in keeping it elsewhere, she said.
The Masons took the plaque commemorating the dedication, but turned the cross over to the SAA, which could do with it whatever it pleased, Shankland said.
She said that the cross’ fate was likely to be simply demolished as there was no one who wanted to take ownership of it.
A Mason contacted church member Wayne B. Light, a longtime Sedona artist known for creating cross jewelry, who relayed the cross’ predicament to Sedona United Methodist Church Pastor Fred Mast and the two have been working on ways to preserve the cross at the airport as a historical landmark.
“We cannot and will not let it be demolished,” Mast said.
“It is a historic piece of the city,” Light said.
The SAA offered the Masons assistance to remove the cross from the site if they did not have the funds to do so.
“If it was an issue of money, we offered to take it down for them,” Shankland said.
The SAA paid D&O crane company of Cottonwood to take the cross and star. Mast and Light discovered it had been taken down after seeing a photo of the cross on its back published on Page 1B of the March 22 edition of the Sedona Red Rock News.
Mast contacted D&O, which delivered the cross to the Sedona United Methodist Church at no cost. It is now stored behind the upper parking lot the Sedona United Methodist Church at Back O’ Beyond Road.
Mast said he’s still not entirely sure why the cross was removed from the shrine.
“It wasn’t obtrusive or offensive,” he said.
According to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, airport-owned property can only be leased to aviation businesses, businesses that benefit the airports directly or leased to non-aviation companies at fair market value, to help airports generate revenue to stay financially solvent.
When the lodge vacated, “everything had to go with it,” Shankland said.
In 2014, the FAA threatened to pull grants and federal funds from the Cottonwood Airport due to numerous “sweetheart deal” leases of commercial space to non-airport-related businesses. The Sedona Airport was not mentioned in the FAA’s report to the Cottonwood Airport.
However, the SAA did later inform the Masons they would have to pay fair market value to lease the lodge, in keeping with those same regulations.
“From stem to stern up here at the airport is county property managed by the Sedona Airport Authority,” Shankland said.
The resort and restaurant at the airport pay fair market value to lease their spaces.
Mast and Light are working on what to do next to give the cross some placement elsewhere in Sedona “Our real desire is to make sure it is preserved as a landmark,” Mast said.
Placing it at the church is an option, he said, but he would have to work with the church’s board of trustees to place it there. However, Mast said he doesn’t feel the cross belongs to him or the church, it belongs to the residents of the city and that it should be in a prominent location, not simply at a single church.
“I’d like to see it put back up in Sedona; it’s an icon of Christ.”
Before the cross was taken down, Mast and Light contemplated buying or leasing a small parcel at the airport to keep the cross where it is or at least nearby, donating manpower to maintain it and paying for electricity.
Now that it’s down, placing it back at the airport on federally regulated land may run afoul of the Establishment Clause, the separation of church and state enumerated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“I don’t think the FAA, especially at this point, would be in favor putting it back up,” Shankland said, citing issues related to religious images on federal land.
Governments may permit a private person or organization to place religious displays on public property under certain, narrow circumstances. Many governments are wary to do so because under the Establishment Clause, such displays can give viewers the impression that government is endorsing or even funding a religious message, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Private religious displays are permissible but only if the government allows all groups, religious or otherwise, equal access to the property, which stems from the 1995 ruling in Americans United For Separation of Church & State v. City of Grand Rapids.
It is unconstitutional for the government to favor religious expression over other expression. In the Grand Rapids decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor emphasized that signage at such a site “remove doubt about state approval of [owner’s] religious message,” clarifying the religious display is privately owned and maintained, to minimize confusion over the ownership.
Private groups may also display overtly religious symbols, like crosses or menorahs, on public grounds if the government maintains a neutral role and if other non-religious displays are also allowed, according to the ACLU, however, the same symbols would be unconstitutional if the government’s role is or appears to be religiously motivated.
Mast said he’d like to find a suitable alternative elsewhere in Sedona where the cross can be celebrated by Christians as a religious symbol and honored by all as a piece of Sedona’s history. Mast said he is hoping an ad hoc coalition of churches and individuals will help find a new place to reinstall the cross.