Religious freedom advocates won a momentous victory this week, when a federal judge signed a settlement allowing a contested cross to stand on a one-acre spit of land in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
The court battle over the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial, first erected in the 1930s, has been going on for 11 years. Atheists, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, complained in 2001 that the “religious symbol” stood on government property maintained by the National Park Service. They said that violates the separation of church and state.
But on Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Timlin authorized a land transfer deal, essentially allowing the government to cede the land to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Congress authorized the land transfer in 2003, but the ACLU has been fighting to block it ever since.
“This is a great victory because there are literally hundreds of veterans memorials across the country with religious imagery,” said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for Liberty Institute, a religious-liberties law firm that worked on the case. “If this memorial had been struck down as unconstitutional then all those other memorials would be in peril, especially the World War I memorials which are uniquely, almost exclusively in the shape of a cross all over the world.”
The legal wranglings over the cross went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2010 that it is not an unconstitutional instance of the government endorsing religion. The land transfer was sent back to the lower court for review at that time.
The cross has suffered along the way: At one point, a court ordered it to be covered with a box until the case was resolved. After the Supreme Court ruled in its favor, vandals tore the eight-foot cross from its base atop Sunrise Rock.
The VFW plans to restore it, as it is the only memorial to veterans of World War I designated as a national monument by Congress.
After all the steps of the settlement are complete, the National Park Service will gain five acres in the area, and the VFW post in Barstow, Calif., will own the acre around the cross. The trade should be complete later this year; afterward, the Park Service will fence the area around the cross and install signs noting that it is private property.
The Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial isn’t the only one to face such challenges. The case of a cross at the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial in San Diego has been appealed to the Supreme Court, and Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton faced challenges this month from atheists who want two crosses to memorialize service members lost in Afghanistan and Iraq removed.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Learn more about the history of the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial.
Download a song to help raise money to defend the memorials.
Learn more about the Liberty Institute.