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. Ben

    As a veteran this is a slap in the face. It's hard to understand how some people have so little respect for the fine men and women who have served, fought, bled and died for this country.

    I have a great deal of respect for the ACLU and other organizations like them. They serve a vital purpose in a free, open democrocy but at times I have to question their judgement.

    Had the ACLU not sought to make this an issue then this group of veterans would still have their memorial and we wouldnt be having this sad debate.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  2. NM in NM

    Marvin just remember one thing: there are no atheists in the end.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. CC

    @mikemc1970 how do you know it was the Atheist maybe it was a Muslim or a Jew or any of a hundred religions that the Christian cross doesn't represent.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Monkeytoman

    Hmmm...so the atheists did it? Can you prove it? I didn't think so. Sounds like a typical trick a religious fanatic would pull to gain sympathy for their cause.
    And of course, you all buy it, hook, lime and sinker.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Steve_PA

    May have been some rightwingers trying to stir things up and blame atheists. Happy now, Mike_Utah?

    May 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dede

    This cross was not on public land. The land was sold by Congress to the VFW and is therefore private land and any symbol at all can be placed there. The people who stole it, who ever they are and why ever they did it broke the law and stole private property from private property and I hope they go to jail and I hope the VFW puts up a shiny new cross with lights and fireworks and an electric fence.

    (I'm an atheist by the way...and not once has the sight of a cross offended me or suddenly brainwashed me into believing something I don't. I acknowledge everyone's right to believe what they want and to have what ever symbols they like on their own private land.)

    May 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BlackYowe

    We will be seeing allot more of this. The hate is growing.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. So Sad

    Reading some of these responses...it's no wonder why our nation has TOTALLY lost its way. Our Founders are rolling in their graves. And Nick – you said crosses don't belong as war memorials. You ever seen Arlington national Cemetery? Friggin hippie jagov....have fun in hell dbag.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Frank

    For those of you that support a cross on public lands.

    How would you feel if a big "A" for atheist was constructed instead?
    How about the Islam crescent moon, would that be OK?

    What if these solders were neo-nazis? Would you then support a
    large swastica on public lands?

    Why not? Why are christian symbols OK but symbols of other
    beliefs are not?

    I have a novel idea. How about we keep the parks and public areas
    secular and then these problems disappear. Do you not have space
    on you own property for something like this?

    May 11, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Steve

    I agree. Probably not an atheist that did it.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cameron

    @everyone else (again)

    apparently most people on this forum don't understand that this was on PRIVATE PROPERTY and they can do whatever they want on PRIVATE PROPERTY.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Burbank

    That's too bad. It was probably a useful navigational landmark in the desert where everything can look the same. Perhaps they can put up another one, when something is that old it has historical status that transcends any particular religious symboliism.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Chris

    So Sad, YOU are the reason why our nation has lost it's way. Somebody said something you don't like and called him a "Friggin hippie jagov". Awesome.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ashley

    i'd like to make the point that when someone dies on scene in a terrible car accident, a cross is usually put on the side of the road for each person killed. this is not about religion but honoring our soldiers. the seperation of religion state has been argued in court & they ruled in favor of keeping the memorial. if the aclu wants to keep fighting it, so be it. but it's not our place to point fingers at who took it-that's the job of the law enforcement investigating this case.

    i say let the fight stay in the courts. & let the detective work, investigation & finger pointing stay in the hands of law enforcement

    May 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Michael

    In response to So Sad, many of the founders of our nation were deists, not theists. And therefore did not believe in Jesus Christ as the savior. Do some reading.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
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