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ACLU Sues to Remove Cross From National Preserve

March 23, 2001|ANA BEATRIZ CHOLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To some, the large white cross in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve stands as a memorial to World War I veterans and a symbol of their faith. But others, now represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, see it as a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution.

On Thursday, the latter group filed a lawsuit in federal court charging that the National Park Service illegally refused to remove the cross from government land.

Officials from the Park Service, however, say legislation recently passed in Congress prevents them from doing so.

"We haven't seen any lawsuit, but is this cross still in the park? Yes, it is," said Holly Bundock, a spokeswoman for the Park Service. "We have legislation that says keep the cross there. That legislation is what we are working on."

According to Peter Eliasberg, an ACLU staff attorney, a former Park Service employee brought the cross to the group's attention two years ago. After the ACLU complained, Park Service Regional Director John J. Reynolds agreed in an Oct. 20 letter to remove the cross "within the next few months."

But a bill (HR4457) passed by Congress in December restricts the U.S. secretary of the interior from using any funds to remove the cross, according to Jim Specht, a spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who sponsored the bill.

Specht said the action was to ensure that the cross remains for the time being.

"Congressman Lewis feels, and most of the people that live in this area feel, that this is a memorial to World War I veterans and therefore it should be protected for that reason," Specht said.

Meanwhile, he said Lewis' staff is looking for a long-term solution that will allow the cross to remain. One option is to take the cross out of the religious realm and declare it a historical monument. Another option is to make the entire area a "free speech zone," and allow other symbols to be placed there.

The cross sits on a piece of land called Sunrise Rock and is visible from Cima Road, about 11 miles south of Interstate 15.

When it was first erected in 1934, the cross was wooden, had a plaque beside it and was on private land. Since then, it has been replaced by an iron pipe cross standing about 5 feet tall, and the plaque is long gone. The area has become a popular gathering place for Easter sunrise services, meetings, potlucks and picnics. Each time the cross has succumbed to bad weather or vandalism, it has been replaced by local residents.

Several veterans who live in a state-run home in nearby Barstow and others in the area have become active in the fight to keep the cross in place.

At a news conference at ACLU headquarters in Los Angeles, Eliasberg called this a "government endorsement of one particular faith," and said it is a clear violation of the 1st Amendment.

Eliasberg said his clients would not have a problem with the cross if other religious symbols were also allowed in the area.

"If this were a public forum, that would be different," he said.

A Jewish veteran of World War II and the Korean War at the news conference voiced his objections to the cross, although he said he has never seen it in person.

"I don't care if people want to practice their religion but not on public land," said Morris Radin, 82. "I think in the United States today, most people feel the way I do. That church and state should be separate."

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