Some see it as the universal symbol of sacrifice in World War I, others see it as the undisputed sign of Christianity, but it will be up to the Supreme Court to make a final determination as to whether a 7-foot cross remains standing in a California desert to memorialize war veterans.
The cross was first erected in 1934 in what is now the federally protected Mojave Desert Preserve by a group of veterans whose doctors advised them that the desert heat would help them recover from shell shock.
Veterans today say this war memorial and others like it across the country that use religious symbols are under attack by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“They are not the enemy; they are just dead wrong,” says Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
But the civil liberties group says the cross is offensive to Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and other non-Christian veterans.
“People of every faith have fought and died for this country,” says Peter Eliasberg, counsel for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “Yet we will have veterans divided about the idea of how you reflect the sacrifice of American veterans.”
“For us to choose the principal symbol of one religion that says Jesus is the Son of God and He is divine and say that is an appropriate way to reflect the sacrifice of people who don’t believe that … is excluding by its very nature,” Mr. Eliasberg said.
“What we would like done, it is appropriate to have a war memorial and to choose a symbol that reflects everyone, and not a symbol that divides veterans by their faith,” Mr. Eliasberg said.
At a gathering last week at the National Press Club, just before the Memorial Day weekend, several veterans organizations made their case for why the Supreme Court should rule in their favor during its next session, which begins in October.
“This Memorial Day is more than just a three-day weekend at the beach,” Mr. Davis said. “This is about remembrance.”
Veterans say the white cross is meant to symbolize the Fallen Soldier Battle Cross, a rifle and bayonet that are a symbol meant to replicate the cross on the battlefield to show honor for those who died in battle.
Mark Seavey, assistant national legislative director for the American Legion, says veterans are determined “to fight to save the cross from the ACLU.”
“It is our opinion this case is not about a single cross,” said Jim Sims, senior vice president of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. “It’s about thousands of veteran memorials and monuments around the country. This is about the issue of honoring veterans.”
“If the plaintiff is so offended that he might possibly come across this cross someday, will the plaintiff be offended when he drives by Arlington Cemetery?” Mr. Sims asked.
The ACLU filed the suit in 2001 on behalf of Frank Buono, a former National Park Service employee who lives in Oregon.