Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
The Mojave cross
A World War I memorial cross built in the Mojave Desert by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to honor their fallen comrades has come under attack from the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims the display on federal land violates the First Amendment.
The ACLU has further fought against transfer of the cross to into private hands, insisting instead that it be destroyed.
But as the fate of the cross rests now with the U.S. Supreme Court, three new allies have come to the side of the VFW and the memorial it established 75 years ago.
“Passive displays like the World War I Memorial, the Ten Commandments, Nativity scenes, or statements like the National Motto do not force anyone to participate in a religious exercise and, thus, do not establish religion,” said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, in a statement. “This case reveals the extreme lengths the ACLU will go to in order to erase religious monuments.
“For 75 years this cross in the Mojave Desert did not disturb anyone,” Staver continued. “It stood as a memorial to the heroes of World War I. Removing this memorial would be an insult to our war veterans. Doing so under the guise of the First Amendment is an insult to the Framers of the Constitution.”
As WND reported, the Mojave Desert Memorial Cross in the Mojave National Preserve was erected in 1934 by World War I veterans who wanted a place to remember their lost trench-mates from the big war.
But the ACLU, representing a man from Oregon who has alleged he might drive on a desert road in California and might be offended by the cross, has won lower court rulings that the cross must cease to exist.
After a federal district court held that display of the cross violated the Establishment Clause within the First Amendment, Congress directed the Department of the Interior to convey one acre of property that included the memorial to the VFW in exchange for a five-acre parcel of equal value. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined that the cross – and the land transfer – violated the Establishment Clause. Further, the cross has since been enclosed in plywood to prevent people from seeing it until the case is resolved.
The Mojave cross, encased in plywood to prevent people from seeing the symbol
The ACLJ, however, representing itself and 15 members of the House of Representatives – House Minority Leader John Boehner, Todd Akin, Michele Bachmann, Roy Blunt, Eric Cantor, Randy Forbes, Scott Garrett, Walter Jones, Jim Jordan, Doug Lamborn, Thaddeus McCotter, Jeff Miller, Mike Pence, Joseph Pitts, and Joe Wilson – believes the ACLU has overstretched its preferred definition of the “separation of church and state” yet again.
“The high court should reject this legal challenge and conclude that the government’s action is not only appropriate but constitutional,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, in a statement. “This case represents the most extreme example of a phenomenon that has plagued the federal courts for decades: Ideologically motivated citizens and public interest groups search out alleged Establishment Clause violations, almost always in the form of a passive religious symbol or display of some sort, and turn it into a federal case because they are offended. It’s time for the high court to put an end to this disturbing practice.”
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, added in a statement, “Since the beginning of America, crosses have been used to memorialize our fallen war veterans and to give solace to their families and comrades. Ironically, the Ninth Circuit used the very Constitution these veterans defended with their lives to order the destruction of the memory of their heroic sacrifices.”
Furthermore, as WND has reported, the Liberty Legal Institute has launched a website called Don’t Tear Me Down that describes the attack on the cross in the desert, which now needs a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court or faces demolition.
Attorneys with the Liberty Legal Institute, which calls the case a “microcosm” of the trend of hostility towards veterans’ memorials in the U.S, say the impact will reach many more memorials than just the one in California. They earlier set up a SaveOurMemorials.com website to warn about the situation.
Besides the Mojave Desert cross, which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered destroyed, there also has been pending dispute over the Mt. Soledad memorial where an atheist sued for the removal of a cross image, a recent attempt by a religious group called Summum that could have forced the removal of donated Ten Commandments monuments in Utah, an attempt to take the Ten Commandments away from a historic location in Texas, and the order to remove a Ten Commandments reference in Kentucky.
In the Mojave Desert cross dispute, Liberty Legal filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and others seeking permission for the cross to remain because the land on which it stands originally had been owned by the VFW, which donated it to the government in the 1930s.
The organization responded to the unfavorable court ruling by donating five acres of land to the government and submitting a request that it be allowed to retrieve the monument. A court shot down the plan.
“It is bad enough to say that the veterans’ memorial is unconstitutional, but it is outrageous to say that the government cannot give the monument back to the people who spilled their blood and put it there in the first place,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute and attorney for the veterans groups.
According to the campaign, “If they win and succeed in tearing down this monument, what’s next? Imagine what could happen at the Arlington National Cemetery. Will they put bags over all the crosses that mark the graves of our fallen heroes? … We believe America should remember and honor her veterans; and were taking our case to the U.S. Supreme Court to tell the ACLU that they can’t tear down our freedom!”
According to a video on the Don’t Tear Me Down campaign website, the veterans of World War I chose the rock because of the image of a doughboy that appears in the rock’s creased face under certain light conditions.
Veteran Henry Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, have volunteered their time for years to keep up the site.
The campaign warns, “Across America, our precious war memorials are under attack by liberal groups such as the ACLU. These left-wing extremists want to REMOVE ALL public tributes to the brave men and women who gave their lives for freedom simply because these memorials use Scripture, crosses and other religious symbols.”
The outcome of the court case “will determine if we can continue to honor and respect our veterans, or if we must wipe their memories from the public square. If not overturned, this case will impact every veterans’ memorial and those they were built to remember,” the organization said.
“This is a critical case that will once again put the spotlight on the constitutionality of religious displays and the proper role of the government and its actions,” said Sekulow. “There’s nothing wrong with the government transferring property containing symbols with religious significance to private parties. We’re hopeful that the high court will conclude that the long-standing display of this cross does not create a constitutional crisis and that the action by the federal government represented a constitutionally-sound solution.”
In a commentary on WND, Rees Lloyd, a longtime California civil rights attorney, veteran and director of the Defense of Veterans Memorials Project, said the same issues also were involved in the long-running Mt. Soledad Memorial case.
Mt. Soledad cross near San Diego
Lloyd said judges who are not accountable to the people should not be able to overrule what people want. In the Mt. Soledad case, not only was the memorial approved by voters, Congress and the president agreed to protect it, only to be overruled by a single judge.
“When the cross is considered in the context of the larger memorial and especially the numerous other secular elements, the primary effect is patriotic and nationalistic, not religious,” wrote U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns.
“The Court finds the memorial at Mt. Soledad, including its Latin cross, communicates the primarily non-religious messages of military service, death and sacrifice,” he said.