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. Whatwasthepoint

    Well, guess we didn't see that coming... i lost the case.. I'm taking your ball and going home.. and telling mom too.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Marvin Guardarrama

    Sometimes good things just have to happen by force. We had to fight the British to get our way, because we thought the British rule was out of line and stupid.

    Religion is out of line and stupid, and should not be condoned regardless how creative the courts get.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rob K.

    You don't have to be an "atheist radical" to understand the separation of church and state you idiot.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jenna K

    This really makes me mad. They were sued, and the court found in favor of them and their rights. And because someone didn't like, they in turn had to commit a crime just to have it their way. If thats the case, why didn't they just steal it to begin with instead of taking them to court? Idiots!

    May 11, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Michael W

    "May they not find peace until it's returned."
    Are you kidding, Tara? Whether or not they "find peace" has nothing to do with whether there is or isn't a cross stuck on some hill in the desert.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mary Jones

    What a sad world we live in. Maybe someone will put it back up. The atheists want us to love and tolerate them but all they show is hate and intolerance. They will find out when they die the truth and then it will be too late.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mike_Utah

    Where's all the lefties blaming "right wingers" for this? The truth is, is that for every act of violence, vandalism, etc blamed on so called right wing radicals there are at least 100 actual acts by left wingers, (progressives, socialists, marxists, commies).

    May 11, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Whatwasthepoint

    Hey,, Maybe the atheists finally took up their cross and followed him..

    May 11, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. tim fitz

    I will be happy to help build a new one out of concrete and granite. It is not about religion, it is about respect and honor. Something our veterans deserve.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. PQ

    For me, as a veteran, this really disturbs me because that cross memorialized my fallen brothers and sisters in arms.

    Athiest or not, Cross or not, it stood in memory of many fine men and women who fought for these nitwits.

    These people disgust me.

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

    How will the ACLU continue the court fight? What court is there to appeal to?

    May 11, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. rAdam

    Sore losers they are. I'm agnostic, so I don't care either way, but it seems like a moot point as they will surely replace it every time it's defaced.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Diane

    No, Church, we've sunk way farther than this. And, I agree with Kevin Allard. Only I believe the fence that is put around the memorial should be electric.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Marvin Guardarrama

    Anyway, it's funnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnny!

    May 11, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  15. s callahan

    A bigger, fatter, cross should replace it..even addiing lights to highlight it. Sad that free expression is stomped on by a few (who themselves are given free expression)

    May 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
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