December 2, 2012

Riverside County to honor Mojave Cross advocates

Henry and Wanda Sandoz with the Mojave Cross in the background after the Nov. 11 installation ceremony. (David Olson/Staff photo)

by David Olson
Riverside Press-Enterprise

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors Tuesday is scheduled to honor those who helped save the World War I veterans memorial cross in the Mojave Desert east of Baker.

The cross was the subject of more than a decade of First Amendment court battles.

It sits on public land, the Mojave National Preserve, and a former National Park Service employee sued to have it removed, because he saw it as an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity. He received backing from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Supporters of the cross argued that it was erected 78 years ago by World War I veterans to honor their fallen colleagues, not to promote religion.

After two federal courts agreed with the ACLU, the U.S. 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 Veterans of Foreign Wars now owns the acre under and around the cross. A new cross was installed on the land on Nov. 11, Veterans Day. It’s the latest of several versions of the cross that have stood on the site.

Among those scheduled to be honored Tuesday are Henry and Wanda Sandoz, who had cared for the cross for 30 years and ceded five acres of their land to the national preserve as part of the land exchange.

American Legion District 21, who represents about 4,000 veterans in Riverside County and helped defend the cross, and retiring U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who first negotiated a land exchange, are also scheduled to be honored.

Supervisor John Benoit will lead the ceremony, Rees Lloyd, director of the California Legion’s Defense of Veterans Memorials Project, said in a news release.