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. Adam

    @ Cameron:
    Sorry, I forgot conservatives are immune to sarcasm. I read the article, figured that out on my own.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cameron

    @ Adam

    good.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Anthony S

    @ Tod (1:23) & Frank (1:21):
    Sure, I made an assumption about who the culprits were. I'm not a court, so I'm not held to the law or requirement of reasonable doubt before I can jump to conclusions. But stealing the cross is small potatoes compared to the long and drawn out legal battle that costs a lot of time and money for the ACLU and the taxpayers.

    Do you honestly believe that the placement of a symbol on federal land is one of the first of many small steps toward a theocracy? Seriously? That's kind of paranoid if you ask me. Emotion has clearly clouded a lot of people's ability to use reason.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Nate

    @cameron

    Stop linking that article, as it does not say anything about the point you are trying to make. It says that the cross is on public land.

    It states that the supreme court ruled that the land transfer plans were ruled to not violate the establishment clause. Maybe link

    http://www.wiggin.com/showSupremeCourtUpdate.aspx?Show=12229

    Which if you read will show that the supreme court remanded the trial back to the District Court, recommending they readress the case in the mindset that the land transfer will be legal. This means that the District Court may no longer rule on the legality of the PENDING land transfer, and must instead address the legality of the display on private land within the national park. The suggested relief was posting signs to denote that the land around the cross is going to be owned by the VFW and will no longer be private.

    Just saying that your article actually doesn't illustrate your essentially correct point.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. sandra pittman

    I don`t understand the fear of a cross,I don`t understand the desire to destroy religion,I mostly don`t understand the zeal of non-believers to yell so loudly about something they say doesn`t exist ! I can`t tell you how to live,why do you think you can tell me how to live and what to believe in ? That cross was to honor those that put thier life on the line for the better good of thier country and mankind. What have you sacrificed to be honored and recognized worldwide ? Probably the same things I contribeted, ZERO.Tear down all the crosses and all religeous symbols,YOU CAN NOT STOP OUR BELIEF IN JESUS CHRIST. I don`t care WHAT you believe in,I only answer for MYSELF.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Linda

    First, this country was found on Christianity. Like it or lump it. The cross was in the same place for over 80 years then some hair brain decided it did not belong. Court case fought and won. The cross is a symbol for our fallen soldiers. I think who ever stole it needs to be treated and tried for TRESON. Religion is one of the choices we are allowed because of these fallen soldiers. Respect of other people’s property has nothing to do with religion.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Frank

    @cameron

    No, it was erected on public land. There was a BS land transfer that's an attempt
    to force it to be legal. It sat on public land for 70+ years.

    But OK, we can go you're direction.

    Do you have any problems with the crescent moon being erected on public lands,
    then 70 years later in order to protect the crescent moon, lawmaker swap land
    with someone to force it to be legal.

    You would be alright with that? Correct?

    May 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Frank

    @Anthony

    The problem is that this is only OK for christians to do. If muslim wanted a moon,
    jews their symbology, Wiccan symbols etc. it would be ripped down in a minute.

    No,I believe in the separation of church-state. It works.

    I live in Texas where christians are now changing the school texbooks to introduce
    their theocracy. Do you also agree with that?

    May 11, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Frank

    @Anthony

    BTW, you also wouldn't mind some Scientology stuff on public lands too, right?

    As soon as they realize everyone can put up what they want on public property
    there will be a Scientology logo in every park.

    That's Ok though, right?

    Or is it just better to go along with our founding fathers and keep public property
    secular as it should be.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Nate

    Christians constantly tell us Atheists how to live. Lets be honest with ourselves here.

    Yes, atheists have gotten much more vocal in recent years, but we haven't once come into your church and told you to stop praying. We may say that there is no god, and that you are wasting you time, but how is that different from you telling us we are going to go to hell for not believing?

    We may complain about a cross at city hall, or at the capitol building, or about the ten commandments being placed at city buildings. But we only complain because it is stating that the City hall supports those religions. The ten commandments have a few secular moral statements, dont murder, no adultry, yada yada. But a majority of them relate directly to relgion and god. They aren't moral guidelines. So of course being directed to observe the sabbath, take no other god, not use his name, etc all have overt religious conotation.

    Under god is on our money, it is now (since the 50's) in our pledge of allegience, and we used to be forced to swear on the bible in court.

    Atheists can't even put up a sign stating "you can be moral without relgion" without it being vandelized (all of which are paid advertisements in the same manor as an advertisement for a church).

    So yes, us atheists have become vocal, and realised that there are a lot of use out there, and we don't need to view ourselves as a social outcast anymore. But we are not more in your face or unreasonable than the Christians who still make up 75% of this country.

    May 11, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tom

    As a Veteran and decendent of a Foiunding FDather and signer of the Declaration of Independence I am totally disgusted by the comments made by some. Weren't you taught the Golden Rule "Live and Let Live" or maybe you would like to see an alien flag in the place of a monument erected to commemorate the deeds of Veterans. I did not hear any cries for a Star of David or a Crescent Moon or any other relegious Icon to replace the unifversal sign of peace. Is it so terrible for we who have fought, died, been wounded, maimed and disabled rto have something we can look up to in our honopr and in honor of those who have gone before us to allow us to say and do what we wish wirthin the parameters of sthe law. We should all hang our heads in shame, for a distasteful act committerd by who knows who? and get together and make this a place of freedoms ssof wrszhip, peace and harmony instead of pointing fingers. Life is zallss too shiort for all of us regardless of what we believe in or think. The Court ruled it could stand, so let it be. I have had many discussions with religious fanatics, acluers, atheists, muslims, jews and members of any sstype of society you weishs stos think of. All of you should be glad and thank szomeone for your being in a country where you can worship,. sthink anyway you wish, but do not dishonor any man, wom,en or anyone who has laid their life of the line so you can be free to think as you do.s s Put it bacxck.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Nate

    Isn't the universal sign of peace the peace sign? I agree they should put the cross back, but lets not get ahead of ourselves here.

    Universal means everywhere, and I highly doubt that if you put a cross on a hillside in afghanistan, the locals would take it to mean anything related to peace.

    As a country, we all need to realize that people are allowed to be as religious, or not, as they want to be, and that is what makes this country great. Our freedom is what makes us great, and we need to get along. A cross on a hill in the desert isn't going to hurt anybody, and there are larger issues to deal with in this country.

    I have much more of a problem with the Ten Commandments at City hall than i do with a cross in the desert commemorating vets.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Anthony S

    @ Frank: I think you forgot that I said I'm an atheist, so it doesn't matter what the symbole is - whether it's Scientology, Christianity, Satanism, or "Bob" Dobbs, I don't care if it's there. Any such symbol is meaningless to me and it's no more harmful than an empty McDonald's cup in my opinion.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Anthony S

    Perhaps this is the difference between being an atheist and being anti-religious (atheists who react to religious symbolism, like wicked witch of the west reacts to being caught in a rainstorm).

    May 11, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Frank

    @Anthony

    No, I did not forget you are an atheist. Even more so, you should realize that the only
    reason that all of our public properties aren't covered with religious symbols is because
    there are laws against it.

    The symbols are also meaningless to me. But why would you want a bunch of ugly
    eyesores all over our public parks? That really makes no sense whatsoever.

    Why do you want to change history textbooks so they are now christian conversion
    text?

    Like I said, does it not make much more sense just to leave ALL of the out? I might
    add that includes atheist symbology.

    It sounds like you would also be OK with a bunch of McDonalds trash all over our parks
    right? How about if McDonalds constructed a huge 'golden arches' memorial in the
    middle of Yellowstone. That would be great huh?

    Better idea, why don't we leave ALL of this stuff off of public property.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
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