Controversial cross at center of recent Supreme Court case reportedly stolen - Word&Way

Controversial cross at center of recent Supreme Court case reportedly stolen

LAS VEGAS (ABP) — A simple metal-pipe cross in the middle of the Mojave Desert that inspired a passionate Supreme Court debate about religious freedom has reportedly been stolen.

The cross — successor to one first erected as a World War I memorial in 1934 — stood atop Sunrise Rock, next to a road in a remote part of California’s Mojave National Preserve. The location is about 70 miles south of Las Vegas and 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Several news agencies — including The Los Angeles Times, The Las Vegas Sun and the Associated Press — reported May 11 that the cross disappeared at some point late May 9 or early May 10.

Although several crosses erected by private groups have stood on the spot over the years, the most recent version was built of painted metal pipes by a local resident in 1998. Federal officials covered it with a plywood box to comply with court orders while the monument’s fate wound its way through the courts.

According to the AP report, National Park Service officials said the crime was discovered May 10 when a service employee was sent to replace the wooden box, which itself had been destroyed by vandals over the weekend prior to the theft.

The employee discovered the cross missing, with the bolts that had connected it to its concrete mount cut.

Motives for the theft, the Park Service said, could range from a protest against the April 28 Supreme Court ruling in the cross’s favor to a case of common thieves seeking scrap metal.

But a conservative religious legal group that argued in favor of the cross declared the theft vandalism and appealed for funds to erect a replacement in a website posting May 11. The Liberty Institute noted, as part of its appeal, that the legal wrangling over the cross isn’t finished.

“While the memorial was temporarily saved by the Supreme Court's ruling April 28, the case isn't over yet,” the statement said. “The court's opinion says that the lower court erred in striking down a congressional act that would transfer the land on which the memorial sits into VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] hands, and sends the case back to the lower court so they can correct their ruling.”

The Liberty Institute and the VFW, the American Legion and several other veterans’ organizations are offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the capture of those responsible for the theft.

Groups that opposed the cross standing on government land denounced the crime. Peter Eliasberg, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued on behalf of the retired National Park Service employee who originally sued to remove the cross from the preserve, told the AP, “We believe in the rule of law and we think the proper way to resolve to any controversy about the cross is through the courts.”

Don Byrd, who blogs for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the theft was “just sad.”

He continued, “Think what you will about whether it's appropriate as a national monument, or whether it is constitutional; there's no reason for this kind of vandalism, which hopefully was not driven by the Supreme Court's recent decision….”

In the case, a splintered Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a lower court should reconsider its ruling against an attempt by Congress to preserve the cross by transferring the land on which it sits to private hands. However, the justices in the majority expressed several different opinions as to why the cross should remain in its spot.

It is not immediately clear whether an effort to erect a replacement for the cross would be legal, given the court rulings on its fate.


Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.

Related ABP story:

Church-state separationists mixed over desert-cross decision (4/28/2010)