May 11th, 2010
11:58 AM ET

Mojave cross at center of court fight reported stolen

A war memorial shaped like a cross that has been at the center of a Supreme Court fight has been torn down by vandals from its remote perch in a California desert.

The 6-foot-tall metal structure was removed Sunday night from Sunrise Rock in a lonely stretch of the Mojave National Preserve, said government officials and veterans groups that have been fighting for years to keep the cross on national park land.

The National Park Service said it is investigating the incident; no arrests had been made as of Tuesday morning.

The high court on April 28 ruled the cross did not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The American Civil Liberties Union, which had brought the original lawsuit to have the cross removed, promised to continue the court fight.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Liberty Institute, the legal organization that represents the veterans groups in the case, are offering rewards totaling $35,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those behind the theft.

"This is an outrage, akin to desecrating people's graves," said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of Liberty Institute. "It's a disgraceful attack on the selfless sacrifice of our veterans. We will not rest until this memorial is reinstalled."

The Latin cross was first erected in 1934 by a local VFW unit to honor war dead. It has been rebuilt several times over the years, and Easter services are held annually at the remote desert site. The site is surrounded by about 1.6 million acres, or 2,500 square miles, of national park land.

The cross itself was embedded in rock held in place by concrete. Whomever removed it would have had to climb up the steep outcropping, maneuvering around rattlesnakes that hide in the crevices.

A federal judge in 2001 ordered the cross covered with plywood until the legal issues were resolved. Many tourists driving by the site had believed the memorial was a neglected billboard.

The Park Service told CNN the wooden cover was reported missing Saturday morning. When staff arrived Monday to replace it, the cross itself was missing.

"Park law enforcement is investigating this crime and is asking for the public's assistance," said Linda Slater, a Mojave National Preserve spokeswoman.

The unofficial caretakers of the structure said they are heartbroken at its disappearance. Henry and Wanda Sandoz have driven 140 miles each way from their home on a weekly basis to maintain the area. Sitting near the cross last September, Henry Sandoz told CNN he has needed to do heavy maintenance over the years.

"Up until the box went on it, I would replace it when it got knocked down, repair it," he said. "The last time, I had to get a couple of cowboys across the way and they helped me put it up. We had to literally to hoist it up because it's heavy, 3-inch pipe, and filled it with cement. I put it up to stay."

Frank Buono, a former Park Service employee, initiated the lawsuit, saying the cross represented government endorsement of the Christian faith. A federal appeals court ultimately agreed, and rejected a move by Congress in 2003 to transfer the tiny portion of land where the cross sits to the VFW as a privately held national memorial.

The justices did not completely resolve the fight over the fate of the cross, but the conservative majority reaffirmed recent rulings that there is a limited place for religious symbols on government land.

"It is reasonable to interpret the congressional designation as giving recognition to the historical meaning that the cross had attained," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy. "The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society."

soundoff (228 Responses)
  1. Steve_PA

    Sarah – I think th people who took the cross actually helped their cause. They are trying to discredit people who disagree with them, so they remove the cross and blame atheists and the ACLU. It seems that it worked just as planned.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. DM

    Why after so long does it suddenly become an issue?

    May 11, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Cameron

    @ frank. Read again idiot. It is on private land. the supreme court transferred the ownership to a veterans group

    read it and weep

    May 11, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. govwatcher

    ...and yeah, we're pretty tired of hearing about stupid athiest people in America, too. We're just not sure where to deport them.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Vince

    This whole controversy is unfortunate and indicative of the divisive nature of American politics today. The Cross was a War Memorial, just like crosses in military cemeteries. When it was erected after World War One, the vast majority of Americans and servicemen were in fact Christian, so it is a perfectly fitting memorial. Memorials and other structures unfortunately outlive the Era in which they were built, so they can sometimes be misunderstood by later generations who have their own issues and different points of view, but that doesn't mean we should go around and tear down all monuments or structures that evoke "old- fashioned" or outdated ideas & practices. If that were the case, then the British should demolish the Tower of London, because they don't practice torture anymore, and the Italians should tear down the Colosseum because slavery and gladiatorial combat are not P.C. Where does it end?

    May 11, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Nate

    @ Cameron

    It actually is on public land. The congress tried to transfer the land in 2003 to the VFW but their effort failed and was deemed illegal. The cross is and has always been located on public land, within a national park.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Rob

    Why would one hold Easter services at a war memorial? People, it was a cross, plain and simple and therefore a religious symbol of the Christian religion.
    I don't condone the stealing of it, but I do suggest that it be replaced (yes, put something back in it's place) with a more appropriate war memorial - a statue depicting a fallen soldier, or a soldier saving another or putting up an American flag, or a granite block/monument with an inscription and dedication to the lives lost and freedoms protected during the war. Leave any and all religious icons and symbols out of it; We can honor them religiously according to each of our personal beliefs in our spoken words and prayers.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Petridish

    Religion is often the reason people kill each other. The world will be a better place when people start focusing on reality and real problems than obsessing about the "afterlife".

    May 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Beth

    Why do so many of you assume that the "atheist radicals" stole the cross? It's just this kind of rush to judgment that allows great discord in this country. There are two weakensses with this thinking: 1) All atheists are not radicals; 2) As far as I know, there is no evidence to prove who actually stole the cross. Let law enforcement do its job before making unfounded accusations.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Cameron

    @ nate

    after the supreme court decision they transferred the land to the veterans group. do some damn research.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  11. John

    This entire discussion is democracy in action I suppose, but I can't help but feel really dis-heartened by what I hear on a daily basis. It's a vision of what America was intended to be, is and its true portential. We as a people seem to be so easily divided and conquered by the very thing that is supposed to make us stronger.
    Forever lost in the weeds and exploited by the few. We have some very real and serious problems that have been staring us in the face for some time now.
    Forward people. Listen, think and THEN act.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. AnneSD

    While I definitely don't approve of specific religious on public land. I'm not atheist, agnostic or anti-religious - I strongly believe in the separation of church and state and that each person's religion should be a private affair, not shoved down other people's throats, nor should my tax dollars be used to pay for someone else's idea of religion.

    HOWEVER, this was not a memorial built to try and justify a religious symbol on public land after the fact - this started out as a war memorial. That is why the courts said it could stay, just like the religious symbols in a military graveyard.

    As for whoever stole it, IF they stole because they didn't like the message, they are fools and cowards.

    But I am not convinced that is the reason yet. I suspect it was more likely metal scavengers. I would not be surprised if the cross has already been cut up into small pieces for sale.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Thomas

    Almost every post here is a HATE CRIME waiting to happen.
    I do believe that there should be a clear, very clear separation from state and religion. But if the owner of this land made a memorial to his fallen Christian soldier then ther should not be a problem.

    To anyone who states otherwise read HISTORY of what happen when you take someone's freedoms away from them. It is not pretty.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  14. MC

    Take the Red Cross symbol off of every ambulance in the country!!!! Do it now because it violates my right not to engage in religion!

    Yes, I'm being sarcastic. The Red Cross for medical identification came from religious beginings...why doesn't the ACLU and the atheists fight that one too?

    May 11, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. steve

    Michael, it has been the sign of war dead in this country since it was founded.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
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