After Long Battle and Theft, Veterans’ Cross Goes Up Again

This Associated Press story by Julie Watson highlights the sacrifices of our veterans and the fact that the freedoms they fight for are endangered here at home as well as abroad.

By JULIE WATSON Associated Press Writer
November 12, 2012 (AP)
A war memorial cross that once stood on a rocky hilltop in a national park before being deemed unconstitutional and ordered removed was resurrected on Veterans Day at the stunningly stark Mojave desert site, capping a landmark case for veterans fighting similar battles on public lands.

Henry Sandoz, who cared for the original 1930s cross as part of a promise to a dying World War I veteran, rededicated a new, 7-foot steel cross on the same hilltop before more than 100 people. The site is now in private hands as part of a land swap with the National Park Service that ended the longstanding legal dispute, which had become entangled in the thorny issues of patriotism and religion.

“Judges and lawyers may have played their roles, but it was the veterans who earned this memorial, and it is for them it rises once more,” said attorney Hiram Sasser of the Texas-based Liberty Institute, which represented veterans in the legal fight.

The settlement approved by a federal judge in April permitted the Park Service to turn over the acre of land known as Sunrise Rock to a Veteran of Foreign Wars post in Barstow and the Veterans Home of California-Barstow in exchange for five acres of donated property elsewhere in the 1.6 million acre preserve, about a four hour-drive east of Los Angeles.

The donated land was owned by Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, of Yucca Valley.

Sandoz, 73, has cared for the memorial as a promise to World War I veteran, Riley Bembry, who with other shell-shocked vets went to the desert to help heal and erected a wooden cross on Sunrise Rock in 1934. It was later replaced with a cross made of steel pipes.

Then Sunrise Rock became part of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994, putting the Christian symbol on public land.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in 2001 on behalf of a retired Park Service employee who argued the cross was unconstitutional on government property because of the separation of church and state, and federal courts ordered it removed.

Congress stepped in and ordered the land swap in 2003, but the courts rejected the transfer. The issue made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in April 2010 refused to order the cross removed. The high court directed a federal judge to review the congressional land transfer plan.

The decision was the latest on the issue by a Supreme Court that has signaled a greater willingness to allow religious symbols on public land amid a number of legal challenges in recent years by civil liberty activists and atheists.

Weeks after the 2010 court decision, the cross — which had been covered up to comply with court injunctions — was stolen. The stolen cross turned up earlier this month in the San Francisco Bay area tied to a fence post. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department plans to return the cross.

But veterans decided to start fresh and dedicate its replacement in Sunday’s ceremony, (Read more here.)

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  • Karyl

    Thank you for publishing this. The American Center for Law and Justice has been following this and might publish something similar today. At any rate, it is always good to let our legislators and courts know when we appreciate what they did, so my letter will be written this afternoon, at at least before I retire for the evening. Thanks again, Rebecca.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Karyl, especially for the wisdom of sending that letter. You are right; people need to hear from us when they do the right thing.

  • Fabio P.Barbieri

    I hope the raving maniacs who brought this lawsuit, and the “judges”, very much so-called, who did not laugh it out of court after two minutes, never travel to Italy. When a maniac of a similar stripe – an alien, obviously, from Finland, who had settled in Italy without understanding where she was – brought a similar lawsuit about the Crucifix in her son’s classroom, most Italians were simply bewildered. (Including the judges; she found nobody to pay her attention until, at the end of the appeals process, she had gone up to the European Court of Human Rights) What everyone wanted to know is, does she really want to get rid of the thousands of crucifixes, images of Jesus and of Mary, paintings of the Trinity or of famous saints, that decorate thousands of public buildings and highways everywere in the country? Eventually even the European court dismissed the suit by 15 votes to 2. And you know what? Italian atheists, pagans and Muslims continue not to feel either oppressed or persecuted by the crucifixes in public halls or the little madonnas in the street.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Great story Fabio.

  • Joe Stewart

    Thank you for posting this! It is so important that we fight for those who fight for us :).