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. Brian Coles

    @Dede: we may not agree strongly on SOME things, but your post has grit. Have a nice day.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Fla Cane Fan

    Jeff, #89 – I couldn't agree more. You said all that needs to be said in a clear and simple way.

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

    This memorial was to honor the men and women who died to give you the right to criticize their memorial. get a life honor our heroes and get over yourselves you bunch of hypocrites!

    May 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jim in Brooklyn

    As a show of solidarity for the Mojave cross and the right for it to be there, why don't we all place a cross in a public place WHEREVER and WHENEVER we want???!!!

    I'm doing it TODAY!!!

    May 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tod

    teej again, instead of my building a unicorn memorial, how about a pentagram memorial? How about something that offends you as much as a bloody Christian cross offends me? It's okay, it will be a 'memorial" to the vets.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Cameron

    @ frank

    you are an idiot who cant be bothered to actually go and read more about this case

    its on private property! NOT public! PRIVATE

    that's spelled p-r-i-v-a-t-e

    and if you are on private property you can honor whoever with whatever symbol you want.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jim Scott

    The monument has stood since 1934 and now this happened. And to the poster who said boot. helment and an M-16 would be more approate: Please read up on your history about this monument. It was placed there in 1934 by the VFW in honor of WW1 Vets. Latter generations of Vets have also embraced the monument.

    If you don't agree with the monument you don't have to go there or read about it or look at pictures of it. But how dare you think it's your right to tear down something you disagree with. To all the Vets who read this, I think a "Blanket Party" is in order for who ever did this.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Thomas

    I never said an atheist did it. I never said it was right or wrong. What I'm saying is, that it was a piece of history. Whether or not if a soldier was Christian, Jewist, Budhist, Muslum, atheist, or agnostic. It was a memorial to the Christian soldiers who lost there lives for this country. And, they lost there lives weather they though positive or negatively for the cause.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joe

    That's a bunch of bullcrap. So now they just take the law into their own hands.I also would donate to replace it although I would hook it up to 220 volts.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Cameron

    @ Tod

    its private property

    May 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Michael

    Those poor Founding Fathers must be powder by now from all the rolling they do in those graves.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Observer

    Why can't people give the respect to other people that they want for themselves?

    May 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Michael

    By the way, atheists see the cross as the ultimate sign of immorality. Doesn't really show respect to soldiers.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ET

    what is the cross made of? Is it steel that can be melted down and reused? Then this is just simple thievery. Or is it possibly a "collector's item"? Or this is just some prank by a bunch of immature hooligans who have nothing else to do with their time than to show off to each other. Whatever the situation, the truth lies in the desert.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Rodney Hinds

    The cross is not a memorial, it is a christian symbol. Do the millions of non-Christian soldiers that have served in our military and that have dies for this country see a cross as a memorial? I think not. At least I sure don't see it that way.
    Rodney Hinds
    Veteran Viet Nam

    May 11, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
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