November 16, 2011

Cross shows up mysteriously, but briefly, on Mojave rock

By Henry Brean
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Mojave National Preserve - A white cross rose again this week over Sunrise Rock in California's Mojave National Preserve, briefly resurrecting a constitutional controversy over religious symbols on federal land.

It's unclear who put up the new cross, made of plastic pipe, or when, but the National Park Service removed it Tuesday from the rock 75 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

Linda Slater, spokeswoman for the preserve, said park personnel had no choice but to take it down.

"We're under a court order prohibiting us from displaying a cross at Sunrise Rock," she said.

The legal fight dates back a decade now. The original cross goes back considerably further than that -- clear back to 1934, when a group of World War I veterans mounted a welded steel symbol atop Sunrise Rock as a memorial to fallen soldiers.

For decades, it served as a site for Easter Sunday services and the occasional veterans event. A handful of volunteers maintained -- and occasionally replaced -- the cross, which was damaged from time to time by vandals and the desert wind.

The Mojave Memorial Cross, as it came to be known, was still there in 1994 when the federal government declared the 1.6 million acres surrounding it a national preserve.

And the cross was still there in 1997 when a retired park service employee lodged a complaint about it because he considered it a government endorsement of Christianity.

A pair of lawsuits ensued, and the cross was cast into darkness, spending several years covered by boards like a roadside sign with no writing on it.

One of the lawsuits made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in a 5-4 decision last year the justices ruled the symbol could stay while a lower court reconsidered the case.

Two weeks later, the original cross was stolen by still-unidentified vandals.

It was replaced days later by a replica cross, but the service quickly removed that one because the Supreme Court ruling applied only to the original disputed cross.

Wyn Hornbuckle, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the PVC pipe cross that showed up this week on Sunrise Rock was taken down for the same reason.

"The National Park Service removed the newly erected cross yesterday to comply with the court's existing injunction," he said in a statement.

Not everyone is satisfied with that answer.

Southern California resident William McDonald visits Mojave National Preserve several times a year and writes a blog about the desert under the name Morongo Bill.

He noticed the return of the cross on Monday and was watching from a distance as it was removed on Tuesday.

As far as he is concerned, this isn't about the separation of church and state; it's about the desecration of a war memorial that has been around for more than three quarters of a century.

"I'm a veteran, and I believe we don't know where we're going if we don't know where we've been," he said. "I feel so strongly about this (that) I think they should do an Occupy Sunrise Rock-type thing."

Hornbuckle said settlement talks are under way that could finally bring the legal fight over the cross to an end.

On Tuesday, the same day the latest replica cross was removed, a federal judge granted the parties involved in both lawsuits until Feb. 15 to hammer out a deal.

The most likely option is for the federal government to transfer ownership of Sunrise Rock to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for private land elsewhere in or around the preserve. Once the rock is in private hands, there would be nothing to prevent the placement of a memorial cross there.

As it now stands, erecting a cross or other religious symbol on Sunrise Rock is "technically illegal," Slater said.

Asked what would happen to the latest cross removed by the service, she said: "We'll put it in the evidence locker with the other one. What else would we do with it?"