Amid an ongoing dispute over whether statues viewed by some as symbols of racism and oppression should be taken down, five protesters were charged with felony vandalism last week for toppling an 18th century Spanish missionary’s monument at a Catholic church north of San Francisco.

The Marin County District Attorney’s Office filed charges Nov. 12 against five people accused of splashing red paint on a 6-foot statue of Junípero Serra before knocking it down at St. Raphael Church in downtown San Rafael. The incident took place during an Oct. 12 demonstration on Columbus Day, which is celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day in nearby Berkeley and San Francisco.

The protest was organized by members of the Coast Miwok Group, an alliance of indigenous people native to the San Francisco Bay Area. The demonstrators say they view Serra as someone who forced Native Americans to convert to Catholicism, subjected them to violence and exploitation and made them abandon their way of life.

On the night Serra’s statue was toppled in San Rafael, the local police department made a mutual decision with the church to watch the demonstration and not intervene to avoid potential physical altercations with protesters, San Rafael Police Sgt. Justin Graham told the Mercury News last month.

If convicted, the protesters face a year in jail and a fine of up to $10,000 or the value of damaged property up to $50,000.

Full story at Courthouse News.

This is a breakthrough moment for Catholics.  Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli’s decision to prosecute on the charge of felony vandalism represents the first time that any of the lawbreakers attacking statues of St. Junípero Serra and other acts of vandalism on Catholic Church property across California will be held accountable for their actions in a court of law.

I would like to thank the hundreds of San Francisco Catholics who have already signed the petition launched this weekend by the Benedict XVI Institute at supporting my call for prosecution of these offenders.

The crime was caught on video.  The lawbreakers came prepared with ropes, chisels and spray paint, clearly indicating forethought in committing this crime. If crimes like these are not punished, then the government is telling mobs they get to decide what symbols Catholics and other faiths may display.

Given that this was vandalism at a house of worship, the San Rafael Police Department understandably recommended that the perpetrators be charged with a hate crime. Indeed, to vandalize a house of worship to express one’s views is not a mere property crime: it is an attack on the identity and rights of a whole faith community.

In a diverse society we may debate and disagree about many things, including St. Junípero Serra’s legacy. But mobs do not get to trespass on other people’s holy grounds to destroy their sacred symbols. While a hate crime was not charged in this case, let us hope that this prosecution will nonetheless contribute to putting an end to attacks on all houses of worship.

Arrest made in toppling of Sacramento Serra statue
An arrest has been made in connection to the vandalism of the Junipero Serra statue in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, CBS13 confirmed.

Cesar Aguirre was taken into custody on Nov. 10. He is accused of knocking down the statue of the Spanish missionary back in July during a protest focusing on the rights and historical struggle of indigenous people.

In July, Bishop Jaime Soto, of the Sacramento Catholic Diocese, issued a statement after the vandalism reading in part, “All monuments are imperfect as are our efforts to live up to America’s founding ideals.  The primary task is to build up our community, not tear it down.”

Full story at CBS Sacramento.