The removal of a cross-shaped veterans’ memorial from the Mojave Desert has angered veterans’ groups and spurred calls for its immediate restoration.
The cross, first constructed at the remote site in 1934 as a memorial to WWI veterans, has been the subject of a nearly decade-long legal fight over the constitutionality of a religious symbol on public lands, and had just two weeks ago been cleared to stand by the US Supreme Court.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the US (VFW) has vowed to catch the people who stole the cross, offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of those behind the cross’s removal.
"This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families," said VFW National Commander Thomas J. Tradewell, Sr. in a statement. In a 5 to 4 ruling, the US Supreme Court on April 28, overturned an earlier federal court ruling that prohibited Congress from transferring public land around the cross to private owners, thus eliminating any perception of government-endorsement of religion. The court battle had gone on for several years as the memorial had remained covered, first with brown canvas, then with plywood.
[Editor's note: The original version of this story suggested the Supreme Court ruling overturned the First Amendment prohibition on government endorsement of religion. In fact, it reversed a land transfer injunction.]
The high court’s decision was applauded by the Liberty Counsel, an advocacy group representing VFW and other military service organizations and the American Center for Law and Justice. Opponents, including the ACLU, pledged to keep fighting for the removal of the cross.
"To think anyone can rationalize the desecration of a war memorial is sickening, and for them to believe they won't be apprehended is very naïve,” said Mr. Tradewell, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran from Sussex, Wis.
The cross’s removal leaves veterans’ groups hunting for clues. Looking at the pictures of the site where the cross once was, VFW chief spokesperson Joe Davis says he is amazed at the serious planning and execution that went into the theft. The cutting of the thick, metal pipes in concrete was a serious undertaking, he says.
The eight-foot-high cross had been perched on a wind-swept rock jutting 30 feet above the Mojave National Preserve 76 years ago by a group of World War 1 veterans. Situated in a wide expanse of arid desert, the cross was about 20 feet off a two-lane highway where perhaps 20 cars pass a day.
It later sparked a First Amendment court battle when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the National Park Service in March, 2001, saying the cross violated the First Amendment because it was a “religious fixture” on federal land. A federal judge at first agreed, crushing local veterans who claimed that the cross was a historic monument, not an ecclesiastical object. The judge had ruled that the US Supreme Court’s interpretation of the US Constitution’s “establishment clause” meant “the government may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization.”
When he first saw photos of the vandalized cross site, Mr. Davis says he was “in shock and disbelief…. How could anyone have the audacity to tear down a war memorial to the dead?”
The $25,000 reward is now being offered through the Liberty Institute, which represented the VFW, American Legion, Military Order of the Purple Heart, and American Ex-Prisoners of War in an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case of Salazar v. Buono.
Davis says that the original constructors meant no disrespect to other religions – the cross was used not out of religious necessity, he says, but out of respect to the 53,000 US veterans who died over 18 months of fighting in WWI.
“Three of the highest medals in our armed forces use the cross – the distinguished service cross, the Air Force cross, and the Navy cross – and no one has ever returned one of those,” says Davis. “This memorial meant a lot to those veterans and we cannot apply 21st century rules of political correctness to their world in 1934.”
The National Park Service is now investigating the case.