The Old Secular Cross?
High Court to Consider Issue of Church-State Separation
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. -- It would be easy to miss among the yucca and Joshua trees of this vast place -- a small plywood box, set back from a gentle curve in a lonesome desert road. It looks like nothing so much as a miniature billboard without a message.
But inside the box is a 6 1/2 -foot white cross, built to honor the war dead of World War I. And because its perch on a prominent outcropping of rock is on federal land, it has been judged to be an unconstitutional display of government favoritism of one religion over another.
Whether the Mojave cross is ever unveiled again -- or taken down for good -- is up to the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Next week, it will get its first major chance to divine the meaning of the First Amendment command that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
If the court reaches the constitutional issues at hand, all sides agree it could provide clarity to the court's blurry rules on church-and-state separations. It could also carry important implications for the fate of war memorials around the country that feature religious imagery -- the Argonne Cross in Arlington National Cemetery, for instance, or the Memorial Peace Cross in Bladensburg.
The Mojave cross's protectors, which include veterans groups and the federal government, say the symbol is a historic, secular tribute; its original plaque from the 1930s said it was erected to honor "the dead of all wars." They argue that Congress has taken the steps to distance itself from any appearance of endorsing a religious display.
But the American Civil Liberties Union, Jewish and Muslim veterans, and others say government actions have only deepened the problem. In an effort to avoid the lower courts' rulings that it must come down, Congress has designated the site the country's only official national memorial to the dead of World War I, elevating it to an exclusive group of national treasures that includes the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore.
Congress's actions ensures that "the cross necessarily will reflect continued government association with the preeminent symbol of Christianity," the ACLU said.
It seems an improbable importance for this piece of desert land, where temperatures regularly hit three digits, an hour can go by without a passing car and somewhere nearby is likely to be a Mojave Green, the desert's own highly lethal variety of rattlesnake.
"It's just a little cross in the middle of nowhere," said Wanda Sandoz, who with her husband Henry is the cross's unofficial caretaker. Henry built the cross that currently occupies the spot -- there have been three -- and the Sandozes say they are fulfilling a WWI veteran's dying request to look after things.
Hiram Sasser, a lawyer with the Liberty Legal Institute, which represents the Veterans of Foreign Wars and assists the Sandozes, agreed.
"I always say you have to risk life and limb to be offended by this cross," he said.
It is unlikely the veterans who erected the cross knew or cared that Sunrise Rock was on federal land. World War I vets had flocked to the desert, either for mining opportunities or because doctors had suggested the climate for those with "shell shock" or respiratory problems from the war.