September 7, 2007

Court forbids Mojave park's cross display

Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE - A cross that stands above the desert as a memorial for Americans who died in World War I represents an unconstitutional federal endorsement of Christianity, according to a legal opinion handed down by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The cross stands atop Sunrise Rock on Cima Road inside the Mojave National Preserve. The preserve is public land, part of the National Park System. Upholding a 2005 court decision, Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote that the cross would not be allowed even if the government traded Sunrise Rock for other land with a private party, thus removing the cross from public land.

The court published its opinion Thursday.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, supported a land trade in a 2002 piece of legislation that would have transferred Sunrise Rock to a Barstow chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for a 5-acre patch of land.

Lewis could not be reached for comment Friday.

Mojave National Preserve superintendent Dennis Schramm said park officials have not yet determined the full impact of the court's opinion.

"I haven't heard anything from anyone yet," he said. "I'm still under a court order to keep it covered."

The cross could be viewed from Cima Road earlier this summer. The original monument, a wooden cross, was placed at Sunrise Rock in 1934, according to court documents. That cross has since been replaced by a metal edifice that was bolted into the rock in 1998.

Sunrise Rock has frequently been a site for Easter Sunday services.

Thursday's ruling stems from a 2001 lawsuit filed by Frank Buono, a former assistant superintendent at the Preserve who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Court papers from an earlier stage in the case noted that Buono was "deeply offended by the display of a Latin Cross on government-owned property."

Federal attorneys representing National Parks Service officials defended the cross's presence in the Preserve. Department of Justice spokesman Andrew Ames said that as of Friday, no decision had been made on whether to appeal the case.