A large-scale battle over a small cross

Court case tests whether a cross in the Mojave National Preserve breaches the church-state wall.

Perched on a wind-swept rock jutting 30 feet above the Mojave National Preserve, the monument looks like a headless man in an ugly suit. It's actually a six-foot cross - covered, by court order, with brown canvas - at the root of a debate over the separation of church and state.

The Mojave Cross has sparked a First Amendment battle stretching from here to Congress over what constitutes religious symbolism and what is just plain historic. Civil libertarians say the outcome could have repercussions for dozens of other cases, ranging from the use of Confederate symbols on Civil War battlefields to the development of national park land.

The hollow crucifix has stood in this gusty-dusty corner of California since a group of World War I veterans built it as a memorial in 1934. Situated in a wide expanse of arid desert, the cross is about 20 feet off a two-lane highway where perhaps 20 cars pass a day.

"You don't even see it unless you are looking up at the right place," says Wanda Sandoz, a native to the area.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the National Park Service in March 2001, saying the cross violates the First Amendment because it is a "religious fixture" on federal land.

A blow to local veterans

A federal judge agreed, crushing local veterans who claim the cross is a historic monument, not an ecclesiastical object.

Over the years, people have gathered at the cross for services and social gatherings. But, although it is a Christian symbol, they don't regard its purpose as primarily religious, says Ms. Sandoz.

"This is just veterans' simple way of saying we honor those who have died for this country," she says.

The federal judge ruled, however, that the US Supreme Court's interpretation of the "establishment clause" of the Constitution means "the government may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization."

While that decision is on appeal, the crucifix remains covered, flapping in the wind, while controversy swirls around it.

A battle on Capitol Hill

The newest wrinkle in the story is that local US Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) is proposing a mini land swap that would exchange five acres of private land for the half-acre surrounding the cross.

The land swap would place the cross on private land, presumably ending the constitutional debate.

A coalition of groups, however, is asking Congress to ignore Representative Lewis' bill. In their joint letter, the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Western Land Exchange Project, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility say the idea would "evade the US Constitution, set a bad precedent for our National Park System, and dishonor by exclusion all of the veterans who have served our nation."

Each group has a different beef.

"The federal government should not offer public land, owned collectively by people of every faith and of no faith as site for the advertisement and promotion of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Pope John Paul II, or any other religious figure," says Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney for the ACLU.

Entering the debate from a different angle, NRDC officials worry that the land swap would start a dangerous trend of using swaps to solve logistical and geographic problems.

"The idea of taking out a small chunk of a national park is like creating a hole in Swiss cheese," says Charles Clusen, director for the NRDC's Parks Project. "It is a very bad idea because it makes management difficult and could create potential problems with other development pressures."

Last summer, Representative Lewis inserted his idea as a "rider" on an omnibus public lands bill, but it failed to pass. The Ninth Court of Appeals has ordered the cross removed, and the US Justice Department has requested a stay of that order.

The Ninth Circuit is expected to rule any day now, and the cross will remain covered in the interim. Meanwhile, Lewis is seeking another bill for his rider.

"It is not unprecedented that we could somehow maintain this cross as a historical land marker," says Jim Specht, Lewis's press secretary. One example, he says, is Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, now owned by the US Park Service. "We believe the judge has not properly considered the memorial/historical value of this site."

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