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. Alverant

    So to steal a legal Atheist sign at a holiday display is OK but to take an illegal cross in the desert is horrible. Nice to see how christians have a consistent set of standards. I guess it's only OK when they do it.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. OldHighlandGuy

    I am an anti-religion person but I think the cross needs to be replaced to honor our veterans that died to give me the right to be an athiest. We actually started to go out to see the cross, as we drove highway 15, just last Sunday be got diverted on our way home from Las Vegas.
    I want the cross back.
    Find the people that stole it and send them to jail or at least a very large fine and/or community service.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jack

    A cross in a memorial is a Christian religious symbol. This fight had nothing to do with honoring the dead, it was all about the shape of the sign.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. emau99

    I'm opposed to the memorial, but stealing the cross is WAY over the line. This is completely unacceptable.

    I hope that the authorities catch up with whoever is responsible for this and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Michael

    Travis, you speak of Arlington. Well, I've spent endless hours walking the Garden over the years and it is planted with many things besides crosses.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jay cruz

    To our veterans I apologize for another stupid act against you. People need to realize that without a church any church there is no state.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Alverant

    It's far more likely christians took the cross to gain sympathy for their cause and pretend to be persecuted than anything.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Adam

    I hope you Jesus freaks out there can open you eyes and realize that casualties and veterans of all our wars were from different religious backgrounds, not just Christianity. How about honoring them the right way, by flying the American flag. Sounds like a novel idea to me.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Cameron

    I guess the ACLU couldn't stand a religious marker on private property. And another point for militant liberalism.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kase

    Im sure God will put it back up. LOLZ

    May 11, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Brad

    BUILD A BIGGER HEAVIER CROSS. MUCH BIGGER. LETS SEE THEM STEAL THAT,

    May 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Matt

    The person that stole the cross doesn't represent all Atheist. I don't bad mouth all Christians because one person does something ridiculous in the name of their God.

    Also, It's absurd to call a cross sitting in the middle of the desert a war memorial. There are a lot of things that would be more appropriate.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Grumpyoldlady

    Hmm. This thing stood unmolested for how long – I understand it's actually in a pretty obscure and hard-to-get-at place and most people didn't even know it was there. My money's on either attention-seeking vandals or ordinary metal-scavengers out to steal a buck, not on some Vast Atheist Conspiracy.

    What makes me chuckle, though, is all these so-called atheists who are so worried about being contaminated by things like a cross in a public park. Some atheists! If there is no god, a cross is nothing more than an empty symbol.

    Atheists ought to worry a LOT more about laws that are simply end-runs around the First Amendment, with no real justification other than religious tradition – things like "defense of marriage" and most "right to life" arguments. That's where the REAL establishment of religion is going on in our society.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Homer

    If people want to remove crosses from federal property I suggest they start with Arlington National Cemetery right across the river from the capitol and all the other national cemeteries where there are acres and acres of crosses, thousands of them, as far as the eye can see. Why all this fuss over one isolated cross in a remote area of a nature preserve?

    May 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  15. PQ

    To Richard Hendricks,

    Keep in mind that the people who served in our armed forces help guarantee your right to make stupid comments.

    If you can't stand behind our troops, why don't you try standing in front of them.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
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