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.
The suit worked its way through the system and, in 2004, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the memorial violated the First Amendment clause forbidding an establishment of religion and ordered its removal.
Today, the cross remains standing, but is encased in a plywood box, hidden from view in the vast desert.
Henry and Wanda Sandoz are the caretakers of the cross, which originally was made out of wood.
“They would tear it clear off at times and throw it down between the rocks, probably at night,” Mr. Sandoz says.
After a few incidents of vandalism over the decades, the cross is now made out of metal pipes that are welded to the rocks below.
The Sandozes have to drive 160 miles into the desert to check on the memorial periodically.
“It’s still there, at least it was the last time I was there, a week ago,” Mr. Sandoz said.
Asked what would happen if the Supreme Court ruled that the cross must be removed, Mr. Sandoz said, “It’d be too sad.”
The veterans groups and their lawyers say such a decision would go beyond that, and would have repercussions not just on war memorials, but on roadside memorials that dot highways to mark fatal car crashes around the nation.
“It’s hard to drive through Virginia and not throw a rock and hit one of those,” Mr. Seavey said.
Kelly Shackelford, the chief counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute, who will argue the case on behalf of the veterans in the high court, calls the case “historic” and said it will have “huge implications.”
“If this is upheld, a lot of bad things will happen,” Mr. Shackelford said. “If that cross has to be torn down, then thousands and thousands will have to be torn down in every state.”
“We simply see this as a disgrace,” Mr. Shackelford said. “It’s outrageous to say the government cannot give the memorial back to the people who spilled their blood for them.”
According to the National Clergy Council, which plans to file an amicus brief on behalf of the veterans, as many as 140,000 memorials marked by the cross could be affected nationwide - a figure at which the ACLU spokesman scoffed.
“That is balderdash; that is so silly,” Mr. Eliasberg said. “It would be silly to say we would go into every cemetery and take religious symbols off of monuments.”
The difference, Mr. Eliasberg said, is that the religious symbol is the choice made by the family, not by the government.
In this case, Congress intervened in 2002 and designated the cross as a “national memorial commemorating United States participation in World War I and honoring American veterans of that war.”
“It amazes me that veterans groups that fought shoulder to shoulder with Jews and Buddhists and Muslims, for them to think something is appropriate to recognize as the common sacrifice of every religion by choosing a symbol that Jesus is the Son of God, is very selfish or oblivious,” Mr. Eliasberg said.
“But don’t pretend it’s just a burial marker. It has a meaning,” he said, noting that it “would be insulting to Christians” to take the cross as “just a sign that somebody died there.”