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. VL

    Hey marvin, what would be funnier is if we hung you from the cross. Idiot.

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

    this is disheartening... i am an atheist and i am strongly against vigilante acts such as this... whatever happened with agreeing to disagree??

    and i am sick of hearing labels, oh this certainly was done by LIBERALS, or in the case earlier of anti-pot "activists" firebombing a pot facility, by NEO-CONS!

    these acts are perpetrated by TERRORISTS, people that are so angry, and simple-minded as to think that violent acts are justified! its disgusting, and should not be tolerated, whther its killing abortionists or desecrating religious imagery...

    someone asked "Which is worst, vandalism or murder?" and i would respond "NEITHER, both do nothing to further talks amongst citizens of America and only end up hurting more than helping communities.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Fla Cane Fan

    If it is truly for "Veterans", I would be glad to donate to help put the memorial back, as long as it is not a cross. If you didn't know anything about this cross and happened upon it in the desert, you would not know it is a memorial for veterans. That said, if you make it a true memorial for the vets, of which I am one, and not a cover for a religious symbol, I would proudly donate to replace it.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Daniel

    I find it funny that Christians are calling Atheists intolerant. Ive been harassed by Christians for over 20 years now. Intolerance only sucks when its directed at you I suppose.

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

    @adam

    the liberals would steal the flag too.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ken

    Go ahead and put the cross back up and this time I'LL take it down. That sort of hatred symbol doesn't belong in our society.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Cathleen Harrison

    Another sign of the moral deterioraton of the Country. Shame on us.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Travis

    The 1st Amendment says nothing about the "separation of church and state". It's about ESTABLISHMENT and FREE EXERCISE. This was a coup by an activist FDR (boo!) appointed Justice.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jump'n Bean

    Don't worry. I'm sure by tomorrow a brand new bigger better and shinier cross will be erected in its place with a 24/7 Tea Party vigilantly swat force watching over it.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Carl

    #40 Travis – Absolutely not the same thing. A headstone is a personal memorial to an individual which rightfully expresses his/her personal beliefs. A memorial claiming to represent all who died fighting for our country cannot do so by displaying the symbol of one religion. Certainly Christians are the majority in this country but a cross is not a universal symbol of honor; it is a uniquely Christian symbol.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tod

    We atheists should put up a big, fiery pentagram in the middle of Yosemite and say it's a "memorial" for the vets. See how long the hypocrisy takes to manifest.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mark

    An illegal alien migrant stole it to sell as scrap.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. HOOOORAAAHh!!!!

    I will be donating $1000 so that we can build a BIGGER AND BETTER CROSS! SCREW THOSE CRYBABY LIBS WHO DIDN'T GET THERE WAY IN COURT!!!

    May 11, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Tim

    "Hey ACLU, maybe we should apply the same logic to remove all of the crosses on headstones at Arlington National Cemetary. Arlington is federal land right?"

    Those symbols represent the individual faith's of specific fallen soldiers. Soldiers of other faiths buried at Arlington have symobls on their headstones appropriate to their own faiths. There's no comparison between that and a single large cross where requests to put symbols of other faiths alongside have been denied.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Cameron

    @everyone else

    I guess cnn "forgot" the little detail that the land was actually bought and it is now private property. This is the reason why the courts ruled that the cross couldn't be removed. It wasn't because they felt bad for Christians, it was because the land was now privately owned, but the ACLU, being the militant liberals they are, don't believe in private property.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
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