(Photo: AP Images / Desert Dispatch, Jessica Cejnar)
A cross similar to the one that was stolen nearly two weeks ago was mysteriously erected in the Mojave National Preserve but quickly removed after authorities said it was illegal.
The replica cross, which was six inches taller than the original one, appeared in the federal park in California on Thursday. Park officials said it was a violation to put up the cross without government authorization.
Since the cross – a war memorial – was stolen on May 9 or 10, some have offered to replace it. Henry Sandoz, the cross' caretaker for some 20 years, also has a replacement cross tucked away in his barn but was waiting for permission from the federal parks service to place it on top of Sunrise Rock.
The memorial cross has been at the center of a nearly 10-year court battle. A former National Park Service employee who lives in Oregon filed a lawsuit in 2001, claiming the memorial is a religious symbol and violates the Establishment Clause.
Veterans have insisted that the cross, which was erected by World War I veterans to honor the nation's war dead, is not intended to convey a religious message. Rather, it was simply put up to honor those who sacrificed their lives for the country.
In 2002, Congress passed legislation ordering the park services to transfer the one acre of land upon which the memorial was standing to a private party – the Veterans of Foreign Wars – in exchange for five acres of donated land.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the memorial could stay standing while a lower court decides whether the land transfer was legal.
Some are outraged that the National Park Service is refusing to allow a replacement cross to stand in the place of the stolen one.
The American Center for Law and Justice recently drafted a demand letter addressed to the Department of Justice urging it to allow a new cross to be put up.
"This is absurd," ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said. "It's appalling that vandals would remove a cross which has survived a constitutional challenge at the nation's highest court. What's even more troubling is the fact that the federal government is opposed to permitting a replica cross to be put in place.
"Americans want the decision of the Supreme Court honored. And that means keeping the Mojave Desert War Memorial in place."
He contended that displaying a replica cross creates no constitutional crisis.
Moreover, "failing to replace the stolen cross dishonors the memory of the veterans it was created to honor," he said.
Veterans groups are currently offering a reward of up to $125,000 for information about the stolen cross.