WASHINGTON – Veterans groups representing four million former servicemen and women have come out voicing their grave concerns over the ACLU's relentless attempts to tear down the Mojave Desert memorial cross.
"On behalf of the 43,000 men and women who are members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, I'm proud to stand here in defense of veterans memorials or veterans monuments," said Jim Sims, national senior vice commander of the organization, on Thursday.
Five veterans groups along with the nonprofit Liberty Legal Institute have joined in a campaign seeking to garner the support of the American people to help save the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial and thousands like it.
"The ACLU has continued its fight to secularize every facet of American life by having a memorial which stood in that location since 1934 either removed or torn down," said Mark Seavey, assistant national legislative director for The American Legion, days ahead of Memorial Day.
Erected by World War I veterans to honor the nation's war dead, the seven-foot-tall memorial cross is currently being challenged for removal by the American Civil Liberties Union and Frank Buono, a former National Park Services employee who lives in Oregon. They filed a lawsuit in 2001, claiming the memorial is a religious symbol and violates the Establishment Clause.
The District Court and later the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the ACLU, ruling that the memorial is unconstitutional. The case will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. In the meantime, the cross – which is located in the 1.6 million acre-Mojave National Preserve near the California-Nevada border and accessible when driving on a two-lane winding road – has been covered with a plywood box.
"If the plaintiff is so offended by the possibility of seeing that cross some day in the cemetery, I wonder if the plaintiff when next in Washington, D.C., will be offended when he drives by Arlington National Cemetery and sees headstones of hundreds of thousands of men and women who gave their lives for their country, headstones with a cross or a star of David," Sims posed.
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute, says tens of thousands of memorials across the country are threatened if the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court ruling.
Shackelford and veterans present at Thursday's press briefing made it clear that the Mojave Desert memorial was not erected as a religious symbol or with the intent of conveying a religious message. It, along with thousands of other war memorials, was simply put up to honor those who had spilled their blood and given their lives for their country.
"World War I memorials all over the world are crosses," Shackelford noted. "That was the universal symbol that was used to reflect sacrifice."
Congress in 2002 officially designated the Mojave cross and its surrounding property as a "national memorial" honoring American veterans of World War I. It also passed legislation ordering the National Park Services to transfer the one acre of land upon which the memorial sits to a private party – the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for five acres of donated land.
While the ACLU viewed Congress' actions as a ploy to protect the cross, Shackelford noted that the liberal group has been "completely oblivious" to Congress' real motivation.
"The reason [Congress] was engaged in this flurry of activity is they were shocked that a veterans memorial was going to be torn down," he explained. "There is no evidence of religious motivation. It was a pro-veterans motivation."
Shackelford believes this case is clearly part of the culture wars in which groups like the ACLU are going after religious symbols.
"I think the odd thing here in this [is] they're so blinded by their fervency in removing these religious symbols that in this case, they don't care that the collateral damage are veterans," the Liberty Legal lawyer pointed out. "They're so frenzied at their effort at religious cleansing ...that they're ignoring that this is a veterans memorial."
For some 20 years, Henry Sandoz – who donated the five acres of land for the land transfer – has cared for the memorial cross, repairing it and placing it back up every time it was vandalized or torn down by individuals. Sandoz had vowed to his friend Riley Bembry, one of the veterans who erected the memorial, in 1984 that he would make sure the memorial was cared for.
"I told him I'd take care of it," Sandoz, who lives 160 miles from the memorial, said. "I made a promise and I will maintain it as much as I can."
Liberty Legal Institute and the five veterans groups urge Americans to stand with them by signing a petition (www.donttearmedown.com) to express their support for veterans.