A white cross cemented atop a rock outcropping in Mojave National Preserve has become the center of a fight over religious freedom on public land. The six-foot cross, made of metal pipes, was erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and has served as a local gathering point for Easter sunrise services. But it could come down if the American Civil Liberties Union prevails in a lawsuit against the Interior Department.
Located south of Interstate 15 near Baker, Calif., the cross has faced increasing scrutiny since it was included in the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve in 1994. The ACLU sued the federal government in March 2001 on behalf of former National Park Service employee Frank Buono, who considers the cross a federal endorsement of Christianity and an unacceptable union between church and state.
The National Park Service contends the cross is an historic memorial to war veterans. In January, state Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, tacked a rider to a defense appropriations bill, designating the cross as a national war memorial and appropriating $10,000 for a commemorative plaque.
For Wanda Sandoz, whose husband, Henry, has maintained the cross for 18 years, the cross is a reminder of America's war dead. But, she says, "I also think of Christ dying on the cross."
ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg says the cross is a religious symbol that does not belong on public land. "It's insulting to say this is a war memorial, when it obviously doesn't represent lots of people who fought and died for this country," he said.
The case will be reviewed this summer in U.S. District Court in Riverside.
Copyright © 2002 HCN and Matt Weiser