November 11, 2012

Cross stands again

The new Mojave Cross after it was installed on Sunday, November 11, Veterans Day. (DAVID OLSON/STAFF PHOTO)


MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE -- After more than a decade of First Amendment court battles, a cross stands again in the Mojave National Preserve, for the first time with the legal blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court.

More than 100 people Sunday, November 11, watched as the seven-foot-tall iron cross was hoisted onto and then bolted into Sunrise Rock, which is 12 miles off Interstate 15 about halfway between Barstow and Las Vegas. Then, the commander of the California Veterans of Foreign Wars, Earl Fulk, formally rededicated it.

The Veterans Day ceremony occurred 78 years after World War I veterans erected the cross in honor of their fallen comrades, and 11 years after a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union sought to remove it.

The ACLU, representing a former National Park service employee, argued that permitting a cross on public land was an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity.

After two federal courts agreed with the ACLU, the Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that a land exchange, under which the land around the cross was converted into private property, passed constitutional muster. The VFW now owns the acre under and around the cross. The land exchange was formally completed Nov. 2.

The ceremony occurred as Riverside discussed a similar land exchange after threats of a lawsuit over the Mt. Rubidoux cross. A military atheist group is objecting to a proposed veterans memorial in Lake Elsinore that includes a cross.

The iron cross that had stood on the Mojave site for years was stolen two months after the Supreme Court decision. It was found Nov. 5, south of San Francisco. A plywood box encased it during years of court appeals.

The cross installed Sunday was a replacement created by one of the cross's caretakers, Henry Sandoz, 73, of Yucca Valley. Sandoz said concrete will be poured inside the iron pipes on another day, to make it harder to steal.

For 30 years Sandoz and his wife Wanda looked after several crosses on the site, those previous either vandalized or stolen.

Wanda Sandoz, 68, said she was overjoyed when she saw the cross finally go up, at last with its legality undisputed.

“I can't even describe it,” she said of her feelings. “It was just wonderful to see it go up and know it's going to be able to stay. That's the best thing.”

The Sandozes traded five acres of their land in exchange for the acre ceded to the VFW.

Sunrise Rock sits amid a sea of Joshua trees just off Cima Road.

Rees Lloyd, a Banning resident representing the American Legion at the ceremony, said the lawsuit against the cross was an attack on religious freedom and involved a memorial that few saw.

“Why would anyone be offended?” said Lloyd, a former Legion district commander who was wearing a white button with a red line through “ACLU.” “You can't see it from the freeway. You have to drive to it to be offended.”

Chuck Wilcox, 47, Henry Sandoz's son-in-law and a Yucca Valley resident, said the years of litigation “was a bigger deal than it should have been.”

“It just seemed ridiculous to me,” said Wilcox, who helped carry the blanket-wrapped cross up Sunrise Rock and then helped raise it. “The whole time I've lived out here, it was just here, part of the landscape.”

The land swap was first negotiated by U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands. Congress approved it.

But a federal appellate court ruled against it, saying that transferring one acre of land to the VFW in the middle of the vast expanse of federal park land “will do nothing to minimize the impermissible governmental endorsement” of a religious symbol.

A divided Supreme Court in 2010 overturned that decision.

“The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement (of religion) does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

During the ceremony, Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the Texas-based Liberty Institute, which focuses on religious-freedom cases and was involved in the Mojave cross case, talked of the indignities that crosses on the site have been through.

“This memorial has been bagged, it's been torn down and it's been stolen,” he said. “And now it's back, it's up and you're standing on VFW property,” Sasser said to loud cheers and clapping. “It's fantastic.”

A cable surrounds the newly private land, with signs stating that it is VFW-owned property open to the public.

The Sandozes became caretakers in 1983, when Riley Bembry, one of the WWI veterans who erected the cross in 1934, was near death and asked the couple to take care of the cross. Veterans Day was established to honor WWI veterans and now honors all who served in the military.

On a table topped with red, white and blue cupcakes to celebrate the installation of the cross sat a wood-framed black-and-white photo of Bembry. The photo usually is in the Sandozes' living room, near an oak dining room table that Reilly gave to the couple.

“My great friend Riley, he would really be smiling down on us now,” said Henry Sandoz.

“He probably is,” he said with a laugh.