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. Anthony S

    That's incredibly stupid. I'm an atheist and I can't understand how another atheist could get so emotional about their lack of religion that they would take it to court, and then take the law into their own hands when that doesn't work. What is the thinking? Are they so uncertain of their lack of faith that they're afraid the presence of a cross might push them or their sensitive and impressionable children beyond the tipping point toward Christianity?

    It's like when some dude sued for "In God We Trust" being on U.S. currency. "But I don't trust in God!" Who cares?! Live and let live! Nobody is forcing you to do anything; and if you feel otherwise, then you're either very weak-minded or you're just trying to muddy the waters and upset people who passionately believe in something for the sake of having a soapbox. LIke their some sort of missionary for atheism.

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

    @ MC

    Those ambulences are operated by private hospitals which contract with the government. So it is completely legal. A large majority of hospitals in this country are fun by the jesuits, so it is fine. You will notice that ambulences operated out of fire houses do not have that symbol.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Cameron

    @ nate

    yea just like this cross is on private land.

    i guess you couldn't even be bothered to do a simple wiki search and see that the supreme court transferred the land to a veterans group

    May 11, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Nate


    I work in land transfers for the Government (Navy DoD) and land transfers have to go to a 6 month public comment phase prior to transfer, so you'll be right in what, October?

    May 11, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Cameron

    @ nate

    so your trying to get me on a technicality... oh please give it up dude. its looking pathetic

    May 11, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  6. State

    How about "Innocent until proven guilty." That applies in law as well as religion... that 1.
    2: There is a reason for separation of church and state. If you notice, everyone that is a christian isn't adding that maybe if we added the religion of all those that have fought for the country should be represented. I'm sorry, but I'm not Christian I'm Buddhists and a ton of my family members have been in the wars as Buddhists and I have Jewish friends that aren't represented as well. So if you can't have all religions represented, then all religions need to take a step back.
    3: and final note I love how both sides, those who are and aren't religious are asking the other to respect their rights, but when something like this happens, no one tries to find a compromise. No respect for each others views. I expect as much from Christians... cause well, let face it, throughout history thats what they do, but come on Atheists?

    We can't ask of others what we do not ask of ourselves.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Frank


    How do you know it was an atheist?

    They do not know at this time who did it.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Thomas


    May 11, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Adam

    @ Cameron:
    Was this on private land? Oh, and just beacuse you hate liberals and think they are trying to destroy America, doesn't mean that you love this country any more than them. No American, liberal or conservative that respect this country and the verterans that faught for our freedoms would ever think to steal our flag, especially if it was erected as part of a memorial. You sir should stop being so stubborn and intolerant.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tod

    @ Anthony S 1:15 – You're making a LOT of assumptions with that statement. Certainly fighting to preserve the rights conveyed in the 1st Amendment don't necessarily have to stem from insecurity, although they might in some cases. It's important to protect the future of this country from religious fundamentalism of any kind.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sgt. Bill

    During the Vietnam war there are no atheist in my bunker, tree to shield us, any large object to protect us from from incoming fire. There was atheist and christians and all the rest praying for God to get me out of this just one more time. The ACLU can just kiss my brown eye.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Nate

    I am saying that you are essentially right, the cross will no longer be on public land which will mean this is no longer an issue. But the whole point of the court case was because it was on public land. It still is, as of now. So in 6 months, when it is on private land, there will no longer be a legal justification for it's removal.

    I am an atheist, and had no problem with the cross being there. I get annoyed with the constant bickering about religion in this country, because who really cares? I am happy to believe what i want to believe, and you are free to believe in your way as well.

    Once Atheists stop attacking legal depictions of christianity, and Christians stop attacking legal atheist displays, this country can move on to more important things.

    I am still going to skip the "under god" line in the pledge, refuse to swear on a bible, and believe strongly in the removal of prayer from schools.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Cameron

    @ Adam

    yes it is on private land.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Thomas

    under god is not part of the pledge. At least it wasn't.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Thomas

    And, instead of going back to the original pledge. Schools are just getting rid of it.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
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