Mojave Cross Resurrected At Preserve’s Sunrise Rock

(November 16)   MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE—The Mojave Cross has been re-erected at Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve, where it stood for 67 years to honor those American soldiers slain in what was once known as the Great War, now referred to as World War I.
The Christian symbol was taken down after Frank Buono, a National Park Service employee, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in March 2001 against the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, and the superintendent of the preserve to have the cross removed from public land. Buono, a Catholic Vietnam War Veteran, was offended at the National Park Service’s denial, on separation of church and state grounds, of a request by Buddhists to establish a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine on a rock outcropping at a trailhead located near the cross in 1999.  The district court concluded that the presence of the cross in the preserve violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, that portion of the First Amendment which prohibits one religion from having too much influence. In July 2002, the court entered a permanent injunction ordering that the “defendants, their employees, agents, and those in active concert with defendants, are hereby permanently restrained and enjoined from permitting display of the Latin cross in the area of Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve.”
After an appeal to a higher federal court upheld the removal of the cross, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that a property exchange, by which the land around the cross was deeded over to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a non-governmental entity, could take place and provide a constitutionally acceptable means by which the cross could be resurrected.
On Veterans Day, November 11, nine days after the acre upon which the cross previously stood and now stands was formally exchanged for land owned by Henry and Wanda Sandoz located elsewhere in the desert, California Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Earl Fulk formally rededicated a new seven-foot-tall iron cross at the same spot the original Mojave Cross occupied.
More than a hundred people, most of them veterans themselves or their family members, came to Sunrise Rock, which is 12 miles off Interstate 15 about halfway between Barstow and Las Vegas, for the dedication.
Several crosses that had previously graced the site were vandalized or stolen. Henry Sandoz, of Yucca Valley, committed to serving as a caretaker of the Mojave Cross in 1983 when he made a promise to that effect to Riley Bembry, one of the WWI veterans who erected the cross in 1934, on Bembry’s deathbed.
Buono, who was in 2001 the assistant superintendent of the preserve, despite his own religious faith objected to the presence of the cross on public land, saying he did not think it proper for any religious symbol to be displayed on government property if symbols of all faiths were not to be tolerated.
Buono’s case cut a tortuous path through federal courts, where it was twice ordered that the cross be removed. Shortly after a federal court ordered the removal of the cross the first time, Congressman Jerry Lewis, in an effort to circumvent the court’s authority, arranged a land transfer in legislation he had passed in 2003, by which the five acres of privately owned property was delivered to the federal government in exchange for the acre beneath and surrounding the cross being given to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. That legislative solution was indistinguishable from the land exchange that was formalized this week but was not previously actuated after a federal appellate court nixed it, ruling that a transfer of the land upon which the cross stood to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the middle of the 1.6 million acre federal preserve “will do nothing to minimize the impermissible governmental endorsement” of a religious symbol.
The 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed the return of the cross to its original spot was a sharply divided one, with the go-ahead given in a 5-4 decision. “The goal of avoiding governmental (religious) endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Hiram Sasser, an attorney with the Texas-based Liberty Institute, who is credited with carrying out most of the legal battle that led to the reestablishment of the shrine, said “It rises once more.”
The Veterans of Foreign Wars have placed a plaque into Sunrise Rock, demarking the cross as a memorial for all U.S. war veterans. They have also put a fence around the site, but have left entrances for visitors.
In the coming weeks, Sandoz and other volunteers will return to fill the hollow iron cross with concrete to make it more difficult to cart off.
While there are signs that say the shrine site is private land, in the spirit of openness, anyone can come onto the property, leaving it vulnerable to vandals and thieves, part of the reality and paradox of freedom.

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