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. edmontodontosaurus

    "Whomever removed it would have had to climb up the steep outcropping, maneuvering around rattlesnakes that hide in the crevices.
    "
    whoever

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

    @ Observer

    exactly i don't know why people cant respect what other people place on their OWN PROPERTY. As in the opposite of GOVERNMENT PROPERTY

    May 11, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ricky Bobby

    I think that it is just crazy to spend a vast amount of time, effort and money arguing about an object's meaning when that time, effort and money could be put to much better use.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  4. So Sad

    Hey Michael...Are you a good golf caddy? I need someone to wash my balls....

    May 11, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Michael

    PS, the government sold the property after this objection of state sponsorship of religion was raised. The suit was about de-facto promoting of religion.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Virginia Reverend

    I am a Christian pastor. The cross is a religious symbol and thus has no business serving as a general war memorial for fallen soldiers of various faiths and beliefs. The cross is appropriate over the graves of fallen Christian soldiers, and on places of Christian worship and ministry, but not as a general memorial symbol for any and all who have died. That's robbing the cross of its religious meaning, and disrespectful to the non-Christian dead who are supposedly memorialized by the Christian cross. Sadly, it is some of the country's most religious people who are pushing forward efforts to allow our the Christian cross to be used in civic and patriotic ways. Let this be a chance to erect a more appropriate memorial for those soldiers who died serving our country.

    Theft is against the laws of God and of this land. Though I do not condone theft, I am glad to see the cross removed. However, this theft will likely only embolden the crowd that feels we should misuse religious imagery in civil or patriotic settings, and what will result is a bigger cross and more attention given to this misguided tribute to our honorable war dead.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  7. joe

    for all you geniuses pushing the arlington argument, educate yourself on what is allowed. thanks.

    http://www.arlingtoncemetery.org/funeral_information/authorized_emblems.html

    May 11, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. P.R

    I think we agnostics are the level headed. The religious fanatics are full of anger and hate the atheist are full of anger also but we probably are the only non fanatics and can see the real meaning of all this.
    It was stupid to remove by force the cross if you don't like it use the legal system.
    Now who is more radical or fanatic the right or the left? Look at history and you will find the answer.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. psuath

    @eveeryone

    can we all agree what the court actually decided? it was that the US Gov could sell the land with the monument to a private party. i believe that's perfectly legal. and the courts upheld it. the government did nothing to "establish" religion here. the gov decided to sell off land that had a memorial that was religious in nature. they sold it to a group that wanted it. i believe no one else wanted it. i could see if the gov took bids and gave it to a group over group.

    either way, next on the list...innocent until proven guilty. they said no arrests. so why did the "scary" atheists take it? did they? no proof yet. i can easily say some "religious" nut did it for publicity as well. but it's unfounded.

    moving along, it's sad that the memorial was removed. i have opinions about it, but they are with me. i'm just upset at all the name calling in the comments from "tolerant" people of all religions/faiths/etc.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Michael

    12 year old humor sir. Not even original 12 year old humor at that

    May 11, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tod

    @ Cameron: it's only private property because Congress made an end run around the lower court's decision to dismantle the cross by transferring the property to the VFW. In other words, Congress was taking matters into their own hands because they didn't like the ruling... just like these vandals did.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Scott

    @#96 – Dede,

    Actually, there was a ruling that the cross be taken down while it was still owned by the public. The order was ignored and the land sold to avoid having to follow that court order.

    Now that the land is privately owned, this is really a non-issue. It's a matter of vandalism of private property.

    @ all –
    Many thanks to those who show their intolerance whether you are religious or not... be you a Christian assuming that a cross is supposed to be representative of EVERYONE – whether religious or not – whether Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish... or anyone who thinks that this action was acceptable.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Michael

    So Sad, I'm sure I can give your balls exactly the sort of treatment they so badly deserve.

    May 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Cameron

    @Tod
    doesn't matter how it was done. Its still PRIVATE PROPERTY

    May 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  15. wellthereitis

    Bill quoted the following: ""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)."

    Then responded: "Interesting. You of course have verifiable statistics for this given that it is "The truth"?""

    Sure Bill, look where the demographics of liberal versus conservative residency, you'll find liberals tend towards crime ridden major metropolitan areas. Fact enough for you?

    May 11, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
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