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Lawmaker Seeks Land Swap to Let Mojave Cross Stand

Under proposed federal legislation, the site in the national preserve would be exchanged for five acres of private land.

October 18, 2002|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

A 5-foot cross that has been a fixture in the Mojave National Preserve for 68 years and the subject of intensive removal efforts is now included in a proposed legislative land exchange that would redraw the park boundary to place the cross in private hands.

The white cross stands on a rocky slope called Sunrise Rock, about 11 miles south of Interstate 15 near the Nevada border.

The Bush administration is backing the efforts of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) to preserve the cross, which is fashioned out of metal pipe and was erected in 1934 to honor World War I veterans. The issue of a permanent religious symbol on the remote desert site has been simmering for three years. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued to have the cross taken down.

Lewis has successfully interceded twice before. First, he presented a bill to prohibit the Park Service from using federal money to remove the cross.

Then he inserted language in the 2002 defense appropriations bill that declared the site a national memorial.

The latest attempt is part of a massive federal lands bill introduced last week in the House of Representatives.

Lewis' provision calls for one acre around the cross to be given to the Barstow Veterans of Foreign Wars post in exchange for five acres of land that would be donated by a private landowner who owns property within the preserve.

The exchange would allow local residents to continue to gather for Easter sunrise services or other religious worship because the ceremonies would take place on private land and satisfy the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.

Critics say the land swap is an effort to circumvent the July ruling of a federal judge who ordered the cross to be taken down. The Park Service has not complied.

"It's truly amazing that what is a clear-cut constitutional issue could engender the depth of legislative enactment and amount of effort that has gone into saving this cross," said Frank Buono, a former deputy superintendent at the Mojave National Preserve now retired from the Park Service. It was Buono who notified the Southern California ACLU after determining that the cross was on public land.

Buono said he defends citizens' rights to worship and he supports the idea of a veterans' memorial, as long as it is nonsectarian.

"The issue, as a federal judge has ruled, is the permanent placement of the cross -- a religious symbol -- on public land," Buono said.

Lewis' spokesman, Jim Specht, said the congressman had acted on behalf of constituents who oppose changes to the cross site. Lewis regards the cross as a war memorial, rather than a religious symbol, Specht said.

Park officials have tried to be sensitive to residents who love the site even though, officials say, the remote area is seldom visited.

"People out here feel very strongly about it, and we wanted to work with them to find a resolution," said Mojave's chief ranger, Sean McGuiness. "Taking it down wasn't a high priority for us."

Religious symbols are not unknown on national parkland.

The Chapel of Transfiguration is a major draw at Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. But, to be allowed, the structure or site must be found to have historical significance.

In the case of the Mojave cross, a Park Service study found no historical merit in the site, which has changed significantly since the cross was first erected.

Henry Sandoz has been taking care of the cross since 1983, fulfilling a promise he made to a dying veteran. Sandoz, a retired mine employee who lives nearby, said he has re-erected the cross more than 18 times in 20 years, as the elements and vandals have had their way with the isolated site.

The cross began life as two wooden planks and is now made of sturdy iron pipes welded together and sunk into concrete.

According to Joe McGuire, quartermaster of the Barstow VFW post, the Barstow area -- with its cluster of military bases -- is a mecca for military retirees. McGuire said he could envision a tradition of decorating the site on Memorial Day.

"We look forward to having it," he said.

The ACLU's case is still pending. The Park Service has not appealed the judge's ruling but has asked for a clarification. The judge has not yet responded.

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