- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Two weeks after the Supreme Court said it could stay, the Mojave Cross war memorial has been ripped out of and stolen from its rocky embankment in the California desert.

Thieves sawed through the welded bolts securing the 8-foot pipe-and-concrete cross to its platform atop Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve late Sunday or early Monday. Park employees discovered the cross missing Monday morning, said Linda Slater, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service.

Authorities have made no arrests in the case, but attorneys who spent years fighting to keep the memorial within the national preserve say they think the culprits were motivated by the Supreme Court’s April 28 decision, which allowed the cross to remain for now within the federal preserve.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California had argued that the presence of the Christian symbol violated the First Amendment ban on an establishment of religion.

“When this happens 10 days after a court ruling, you’ve got to think someone didn’t like the ruling and took the law into their own hands,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Texas-based Liberty Institute, which represented the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, memorial caretakers Henry and Wanda Sandoz, and others in the case.

Mr. Shackelford said he doubted the theft was a spontaneous prank.

“This was in the middle of 1.6 million acres of desert,” he said. “This thing was bolted and blowtorched into the ground. You’d have to really plan to do this, and you’d need help.”

Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said the matter should be resolved through the legal system and not by vandalism.

“We don’t know anything more about the apparent theft of the Mojave Desert cross than what has been reported in the media, but we condemn any act of theft or vandalism,” Mr. Eliasberg said in a statement.

The Liberty Institute is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible through its dedicated website, www.donttearmedown.com. The park service is asking anyone with information about the crime to call its tip line at 760/252-6120.

Veterans groups expressed outrage at the theft of the cross, which was erected in 1934 as a memorial to honor the fallen soldiers of World War I.

“This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families,” VFW National Commander Thomas J. Tradewell Sr. said in a statement. “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 naive.”

The Mojave Cross has been embroiled in litigation since 2001, when a former preserve superintendent filed a lawsuit objecting to the memorial’s religious imagery. A federal judge ruled against the cross, but Congress intervened and transferred the acre of land surrounding the memorial to the Barstow VFW. The site also was declared a national memorial.

The ACLU argued that the congressional action was a calculated effort to circumvent the ruling, but the Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision that Congress was within its right to “accommodate divergent values.” The case now goes back to the lower court for reconsideration.

“What our opponents can’t accomplish through the courts, they’ll accomplish through criminal vandalism,” said Joe Infranco, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed a brief on behalf of the memorial. “These are intolerant cowards.”

The cross was the subject of another suspicious incident shortly before it was stolen. The memorial had been hidden from view by a plywood box since the lawsuit was filed, but park rangers found Saturday that the box had been removed and the cross was visible, Ms. Slater said. When workers returned Monday morning to rebuild the box, the cross was gone, she said.

Even if the cross is never found, Mr. Shackelford said, the memorial won’t be missing for long. Mr. Sandoz, who with his wife has served as longtime caretaker for the memorial, plans to build a new memorial exactly like the one that was stolen.

The original cross was made of wood, but newer versions have been constructed of pipe and concrete in order better to withstand the desert wind and sun.

“Henry’s already out collecting materials so he can rebuild it,” Mr. Shackelford said. “He has the original picture [from 1934], and even though they’re using different materials, it’s the same design. Our plan is eventually this thing is going back up.”

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