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. Who cares about a hunk of metal

    For pete's sake, I'm agnostic, so who in the crap cares about a cross?! There are so many more important things to worry about than a hunk of metal sitting in the desert! Jeez people read a book to your kids or something instead of wasting your time on this trash.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Anthony S

    @ Frank: That's a great idea, but this country and it's national parks are far from pristine. I don't advocate their destruction, but if you're going to pick a battle, why start or stop at a cross that is meaningless to you? Until the same atheists pick up a garbage bag and start cleaning up the parks, I will assert that this isn't about keeping the national parks pristine and clear of litter. This is about picking a fight with Christians who, no doubt, have picked some fights of their own as well. If atheists have one thing to be grateful for, it should be the fact that they are not bound by some religious doctrine and have no need to "spread the word." Apparently that has left a void for a lot of them. Perhaps it's human nature to try and convert or control? I don't know. Because instead of relaxing in their freedom from religious ritual (This is mostly directed toward the ACLU and the person(s) they represent, not you personally, Frank), they're carrying around torches and pitchforks. It's like the Salem Witch Trials! For Einstein's sake, let it go! You have the freedom to not care and the ability to just let it roll off your back if you so choose to. This isn't the beginning of the fourth reich here.

    May 11, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Observer

    The ACLU can be useful, but why notleave this cross alone. Why is it bothering them?

    May 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  4. blueshadow

    We are great nation being blessed with fruits bored out of so many cultures. And listening to all of us I can not escape this one filling : WE ARE ALL RIGHT IN WHAT WE BELIEVE. All of us! .. If we properly understand that everyone of us is driven by that unstoppable inner power to express ones determination, devotion, deposition to do good and even better for ALL of us. It does not matter if we call that religion, faith, patriotism etc ... That force is ALWAYS here with us and direct our steps.
    Said that, I am asking WHY WE DO NOT HAVE YET DEVELOPED A COMMON SYMBOL encompassing all faiths and religions (atheism being one of them 😉 (something like COEXIST sign.. for lack of better example).
    We can cut criteria to have a certain percentage to qualify for inclusion in "The Symbol" .. and here we go .. we can put it in any public place where we want to commemorate anything of value coming form a hard labor and sacrifice of ours.
    Please note: These who fell at Foreign Wars were Christians and Jews and Atheists and Muslims and Native Americans and many countless others representing all so vibrant tapestry of our society. Crudely taking ones before the other is simply NOT FAIR to THESE VETERANS !!!!

    May 11, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. another vet

    A war memorial or a veteran's memorial erected to truly honor the war dead such as what you see at other sites would be more fitting. Putting up another cross or a bigger cross only devides us. I'd get behind a fitting war memorial, but not another religious symbol.

    May 11, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  6. michael

    this is just sick, Its a war memorial and some athiest want to dictate to everyone else what to not to believe in

    May 11, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Judi K.

    Okay, we can't use a cross. Forget about a Jewish Star. How do we find consensus and agree on what would be appropriate?

    May 11, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Frank

    @anthony

    Well Anthony, my Atheist group does do trash pickup, we even have an Adopt a Street designation, did this mean I can complain now?

    For the life of me I can't figure out why you would be a proponent of making our parks uglier and trashier. It really makes no sense whatsoever.

    BTW I might add that the person or persons that stole the cross is also in the wrong. You cannot take the law into your own hands. I just believe that christians also need to follow the law, the First Amendment is a good place to start.

    As you should know, most atheist are not picking fights, we are responding to the actions of others.

    But, my guess is that this is not an atheist that removed the cross, my guess is that it's a christian. Many christians also believe in separation of c/s. The First Amendments purpose is not to go against religion but to protect religion and the state by keeping them separate.

    A very smart Presbyterian preacher said it best: (sorry I forgot his name) "The separation of church state is a very important concept. If a religion is bad the last thing you want is for it to influence the state, if a religion is good, the last thing you want is for the state to influence it. So in this country we have decided to keep the 2 separate to protect them both"

    May 11, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Anthony S

    Why can't it be a cross? I agree with Justice Anthony Kennedy who said, "The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm".
    If other atheists are anything like me, one of the things I don't like about certain fringes of the Christian moral majority is that they seem to be offended by everything under the sun, ban things that offend them, and assert or mandate for everybody what they think is moral. But then I read stuff like this and it makes atheists seem like they're the ones trying to shove their religion (or lack thereof) down everybody's throat. Their becoming the bullies... or worse; a theocratic organization - the very thing they seek to avoid.

    May 11, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Frank

    I prefer this christian preachers perspective:

    The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said he was “very disappointed” in the Supreme Court’s decision. “It’s alarming that the high court continues to undermine the separation of church and state. Nothing good can come from this trend,” he said.

    “The court majority seems to think the cross is not always a Christian symbol,” Lynn said. “I think Americans know better than that.”

    May 11, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Anthony S

    @Frank: By no means do I advocate making the parks uglier and trashier. But in the course of the lifetime of most U.S. citizens, the Mojave National Preserve has always had a cross. In this case, it's not much different than an entrance sign.

    This cross is not a government endorsement of any religion, let alone a declaration establishing a state religion. It was erected by the VFW when the land was owned by the VFW. I don't see why the government should use taxpayer money to remove these symbols that existed before the land was transferred to the federal government.

    For the record, I agree with separation of church and state; I just think this is taking it a little too far. I also think we will probably continue to disagree, and personally I'm not so passionate as to care to go back and forth any further about it.

    May 11, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Sandy

    This was a symbol for our fallen brother & sisters in the service of their country. Period. What are we going to do, replace all the crosses at Arlington next? It wasn't a religious symbol, people, get over it and leave it be. Let's get it put back and remind people what it stands for.

    I'm getting darn sick and tired of the few telling the majority what they should and should not do. How about you believe what you believe and leave the rest of us alone to believe what we believe? But, we shouldn't have to give up anything just because it "offends" you. Guess what, people like you offend me. But we can't sue for our rights and our beliefs. We're not allowed to have beliefs or rights any more.

    May 11, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Terry

    If it wasn't a religious symbol, then why does it have to be a cross? Why not a stylistic representation of a single candle, lighting the way to peace? Better still, a peace symbol! I know of no one who spent any time in hot combat zones who doesn't value peace.

    Come on, we all know the cross has religious meaning; if it doesn't, then try one of my ideas.

    May 11, 2010 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  14. beth

    That Cross that was put up in 1934 should not have been touched because of the" grandfather clause" in law. You can not touch something that is up before a law can take it down.

    May 12, 2010 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
  15. Rey

    For what it's worth... I owe the existence of my life and my family, the way we know int today, to what those that served did for us. Many, a great many, made the ultimate sacrifice, not always by their choice, so that I, my wife, my children, my mother, father, brothers, sisters, and all for their children, and their children's children, could merely exist. Whenever I see a vet that served, I feel compelled to thank him/her for the service they provided me and mine, and if they feel like a cross or a statue of the Virgin Mary would honor the service they gave us all, then let them have it. It doesn't cause any injury to look at a cross, and if you don't like it, don't look. Besides, would a national park have remained a national park if we were now a part of say, the Third Reich? And believe it or not, I am agnostic... And a Cuban Ex-Pat...

    May 12, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
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