- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2001

CIMA, Calif. — On a windswept outcropping of rock in this remote desert valley stands a small, squat metal cross. There is little remarkable about the cross, standing about 6 feet high, made of cast-off steel pipe and bolted to a rock 20 feet into the dark-blue desert sky.
But this little-seen and little-known cross is at the center of an emotional two-year battle, pitting local veterans and Christians against a former federal employee who helped manage the surrounding federal parkland and his attorneys from the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The U.S. government on U.S. government land is allowing one group to put up one religious symbol," said Peter Eliasberg, an attorney for the ACLU. "They dont allow anyone else to put up a symbol, religious or otherwise."
The ACLU and former National Park Service employee Frank Buono filed suit in federal court in March to force the Park Service to remove the cross. The Park Service, which has managed the sprawling Mojave National Preserve since 1994, agreed last year to take down the cross after years of public pressure from the ACLU.
In November, however, Congress, led by Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican, stepped in to block the removal temporarily.
"The presence of the cross along with the exclusion of other freestanding, permanent displays adversely affects Mr. Buonos use and enjoyment of the area," the ACLU wrote in the resulting lawsuit, filed in federal court in nearby Riverside.
Supporters of the cross, however, say that the ACLU is stepping on decades of history and tradition.
There is wide disagreement over the precise history of the cross, but it is known to have been erected in 1934 by local World War I veterans who wanted to commemorate their fallen comrades. A plaque at the site explains the significance of the cross, but it was removed at least 20 years ago by vandals, who have also destroyed the original cross and several replacements.
Since the early 1980s, meanwhile, the cross has become something of a pilgrimage site for Christians and the site of an annual Easter sunrise service, while also serving as a landmark for hikers visiting the vast High Desert preserve.
Although it is fairly isolated, about 10 miles off the highway down a little-traveled two-lane road through the preserve, the cross is clearly a gathering place. The base of the rock outcropping is ringed with campfire sites and the area shows numerous signs of camping and picnicking.
"I think people would feel very poorly" if the cross were removed, said Henry Sandoz, a retired mechanic who has maintained the cross, at his own expense, for two decades at the request of the now-deceased World War I veterans.
"Were Christians — we like the Easter service," said his wife, Wanda Sandoz.
Mr. and Mrs. Sandoz refuse to criticize the ACLU too harshly over the groups effort to remove the cross. Other area residents are less reserved.
"To me it is an abomination to even consider taking it down," said James Smyth, a clerk at the Cima Store, a dusty commercial outpost in the middle of the desert preserve.
"That cross doesnt take away from the beauty of the desert," said Irene Ausmus, postmaster of the adjacent Cima Post Office. "To me it represents the people who gave their lives for our country — its basically a slap in the face if they take it down."
Local officials in this conservative and rural district are lined up behind the cross.
"I think its stupid, but the ACLU does a lot of stupid things," said state Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight, vice chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and a former Air Force test pilot.
The ACLU is "technically and rigorously probably correct, but they are not in tune with what the people want… . I think it would be a loss for the country," Mr. Knight said. "That cross is for the veterans."
San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors member Bill Postmus said he has yet to hear from a single constituent upset by the cross or supportive of removing it.
"I think the whole issue is ridiculous," he said. "I think the cross should stay as it is."
In Washington, Mr. Lewis inserted a provision into this years budget prohibiting the National Park Service from making good on its plan to remove the cross. Mr. Lewis was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman said he is considering legislation to protect the cross permanently by designating it as a historic landmark.
Mary Martin, the National Park Service superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, confirmed that the Park Service, under orders from Congress, will not take down the cross, but she refused to comment further since the issue is now part of a lawsuit.
But for all the support from local residents, Mr. Eliasberg said, it is still not right for a powerful religious symbol to stand on federal land.
The National Park Service has not stopped Mr. Sandoz from repairing and maintaining the cross, but it will not allow other similar symbols to be erected on the site, Mr. Eliasberg said. The government, therefore, could be seen as endorsing the most potent symbol of Christianity to the exclusion of all other religions.
Nor, he said, does the historical argument stand up. The cross may have been intended to honor veterans, but that does not drain the symbol of its religious significance, he said. Moreover, many veterans, including Mr. Eliasbergs own father, who is Jewish, belong to religions that do not venerate the cross.
"That doesnt represent my father," Mr. Eliasberg said.
The ACLU lawsuit, however, is not intended as an assault on the cross as a Christian symbol, he said. It is simply an effort to prevent government endorsement of a particular religion, as demanded by the First Amendment.
"We would be equally offended if the government were to put up a sign, or allowed to be put up a sign that said 'God is dead," Mr. Eliasberg said.


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