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Veterans ask to join fight over Mojave cross

The Mojave Cross encased in plywood to prevent people from seeing the symbol, before it was torn down by vandals

Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars have filed a motion in federal court seeking permission to intervene in the long-running lawsuit over the Mojave Desert War Memorial, following the failure by President Obama to respond to their demands that the vandalized cross be restored.

Word of the filing, on behalf of the VFW Department of California and VFW Post 385, comes the Liberty Institute, which has battled on behalf of the 76-year-old memorial for years.

The veterans have a vested interest in the case since the memorial and the land where it once stood is theirs, the legal organization said.

The request “comes more than 90 days after the veterans asked President Obama to help restore the stolen Mojave Desert War Memorial,” Liberty Institute said.

“The veterans and the fallen heroes this memorial represents paid for this small parcel of land with their own blood, sweat and tears,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of the institute. “Our nations’ veterans deserve a voice and must not be ignored, especially since this is their monument and their land.”

The cross originally was erected by veterans more than seven decades ago. In 2002, Congress passed a land transfer statute that essentially traded to the veterans the one acre surrounding the Mojave Desert War Memorial for five acres elsewhere in the Mojave National Preserve that were annexed by the government.

Prompted by a challenge to the memorial’s existence, a district court ruling halted the transfer. The move was affirmed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But in April, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and returned the case for further work.

Only days after the high court ruled that the memorial cross could remain, vandals tore it down. It has remained in that vandalized state, officials said.

“The court should grant our motion to intervene,” said Ted Cruz, who is with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, which is working with Liberty Institute on the case.

“By act of Congress, this land belongs to the VFW, and the veterans have an acute interest in restoring and preserving this 76-year-old memorial to those brave American soldiers who gave their lives in World War I,” he said.

It was on June 14 when a coalition of veterans including VFW, the American Legion and Military Order of the Purple Heart sent a letter to the president asking him to help put the vandalized memorial back in its rightful place.

“This is our land, our memorial and we want it back,” said James Rowoldt, state adjutant/quartermaster of the VFW Department of California. “To deny the veterans a chance to defend our own is to continue to dishonor those for whom the Memorial stands.”

Meanwhile, officials confirm a reward of $125,000 is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for vandalizing the cross.

There is a special Don’t Tear Me Down website to coordinate efforts to preserve the memorial.

WND reported in April when the U.S. Supreme Court released its opinion that effectively raised the bar for those who express an “offense” because of the Christian faith.The opinion said the cross could remain.

In the majority decision delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court said, “The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm. A cross by the side of a public highway marking, for instance, the place where a state trooper perished need not be taken as a statement of governmental support for sectarian beliefs. The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.”

According to the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization that has worked on the issue, the focal point of the case was whether someone who has suffered no harm but only claims being “offended” can sue to destroy religious references on public monuments and memorials.

It was only 10 days after the ruling was announced when someone cut down the steel-pipe cross in the dark of night. An activist a short time later put up a replacement, but the federal government, which now supervises the location, removed it because the replacement had not been authorized.

The cross, originally set in place by World War I veterans in 1934, is the only World War I memorial designated a national monument by Congress.

The case didn’t end with the ruling from the Supreme Court. It was returned to the lower court to review a transfer of title to the land to a private organization – a solution worked out because of objections to the cross remaining on “federal” land.

Liberty Institute has created a video explaining the case:

Liberty Institute has set up a Put the Cross Back website to coordinate information about the case, generate support and lobby for a solution.

WND reported when oral arguments were held that if the Supreme Court were to rule against the cross, bulldozers and sandblasters would have to be called out.

“If you tear down a seven-foot cross in the middle of the Mojave Desert, 1.6 million acres, what will you have to do to crosses in Arlington National Cemetery and all the other memorials in highly trafficked, prominent locations?” wondered Shackelford at the time.

The high court’s decision reversed the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and returned the case to a lower court to address the issue of the congressionally mandated transfer of the site where the cross sits to a private interest, the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The memorial was originally erected as a wooden cross with a plaque stating, “The Cross, Erected in Memory of the Dead of All Wars” and “Erected 1934 by Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Death Valley Post 2884.” Beginning in 1935, people gathered intermittently at the site for Easter services, which became a regular occurrence in 1984.

According to the National Park Service, the gatherings by private parties somehow transformed the war memorial into a religious shrine of sorts and disqualified it from being included in the National Register of Historic Places. Congress then enacted a series of laws aimed at preserving the monument, including, most recently, a land exchange that would transfer ownership of the land upon which the monument rests to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for its donation of another piece of property to the Park Service.

The ACLU, which brought the case on behalf of a retired Park Service worker, Frank Buono, instead insisted that the cross be torn down.

The majority opinion said the government’s decision to transfer ownership of the land was a reasonable resolution to an otherwise unsolvable problem.

Chief Justice John Roberts summed up the case in a paragraph.

“At oral argument, respondent’s counsel stated that it ‘likely would be consistent with the injunction’ for the government to tear down the cross, sell the land to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and return the cross to them, with the VFW immediately raising the cross again. … I do not see how it can make a difference for the government to skip that empty ritual and do what Congress told it to do – sell the land with the cross on it,” he wrote. “The Constitution deals with substance, not shadows.”

A video publicizing the dispute has collected several million views: