City May Remove Statue of Controversial Priest Father Junipero Serra

This statue of Father Junípero Serra in front of Ventura City Hall and other Serra statues will be removed.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times) Photo Source: This statue of Father Junípero Serra in front of Ventura City Hall and other Serra statues will be removed.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Saint Junipero Serra, a Catholic priest of Spanish descent, was known as the “Father of California Missions.” As a result of his leadership, throughout the 18th century, missions spanned the area then known as New Spain, which was then part of Mexico. The City of Ventura, like other municipalities, honored Serra by erecting a statue of him near what was then the Ventura County Courthouse and later became City Hall. Father Serra’s statue was declared a historical landmark, and this designation was repeated many additional times.

But not everyone was happy about the Father’s contributions. Native American tribes accused him of forcing them to convert to Catholicism, making them slaves, and committing “cultural genocide.” The Executive Director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission even compared Serra to Hitler, noting “Everywhere they put a mission the majority of Indians are gone.” The controversy led the City of Ventura to remove the nine-foot, four-inch bronze statue of Serra in 2015. Both Los Angeles and San Francisco had removed Serra’s statues as well that same year.

The Native American protests came to a head in 2015 when Pope Francis announced that Serra, who lived from 1713-1784, would be canonized as a saint, despite protests that labeled him a “brutal colonizer.” In 2020, the Ventura City Council voted 6-0 to remove Serra’s statue.

In a unanimous 3-0 decision by the Sixth Division of California’s Second District Court of Appeal, Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert affirmed the decision of Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ronda J. McKaig, who denied a writ of mandate that would have required the city to restore the statue. Gilbert ruled that the City of San Buenaventura (the official name of Ventura) could remove the statute “because it is now offensive to significant members of the community.” The Justice opened the opinion with the observation that “This case illustrates the obvious; attitudes and values change.”

Things certainly began to change for Serra’s statue in 2020, when it became the “subject of protests and vandalism.” Meetings between the Mayor, representatives of Native American organizations, and the pastor of Mission San Buenaventura led to an agreement that the statue should be “moved to a more appropriate non-public location.” The group also ordered a new historical analysis of the current statue and its predecessor which was remodeled in bronze after the original concrete tribute to Serra started to crack and began to “show its age.”

This time the historical analysis concluded that the bronze statue did not meet the criteria for designation as a historical landmark. The City Council agreed and decided the statue should be relocated to the nearby Mission. This decision led the plaintiff, the Coalition for Historical Integrity (Coalition) to petition for a writ of mandate and injunctive relief. They claimed there was no evidence sufficient to permit the removal of the landmark designation, the removal would violate both a key City Plan and California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), as well as state and municipal laws. CEQA protects objects of historical or athletic significance.

Gilbert’s ruling reviewed each of these arguments. The justices found that Serra’s statue did not meet the 40-year threshold requirement for historical landmarks primarily because the original concrete statue and its bronze replacement were two different entities. This separation also makes compliance with CEQA inapplicable. Similarly, protections under the City Plan did not apply. If it was never a historical landmark, all laws that would safeguard the statue become irrelevant.

The final issue raised by the Coalition contended that the City Council “unlawfully acted with bias and prejudice” because the Council members were acting in a “quasi-judicial capacity.” The opinion concluded, “The City decided to remove the statue because it was offensive to some members of the community. The City was not engaged in finding facts under criteria established by a statute or ordinance. It was making policy.” It was a legislative, not quasi-judicial act which would have required compliance with a “statute or ordinance.”

The City of Ventura had the right to remove the historical landmark designation from Father Serra’s statue and to order its relocation to a non-public mission. As Justice Gilbert said, attitudes and values definitely changed and those who find Father Serra offensive will no longer have to see him when they visit City Hall, while those who wish to honor him can still do so at one of his missions.

Maureen Rubin
Maureen Rubin
Maureen is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's degree from USC. She is a licensed attorney in California and was an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge specializing in media law and writing. With a background in both the Carter White House and the U.S. Congress, Maureen enriches her scholarly work with an extensive foundation of real-world knowledge.
Legal Blogs (Sponsored)