(Photo: AP / Liberty Legal Institute, Henry and Wanda Sandoz)
A hilltop war memorial cross in California that was deemed an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity and ordered removed was resurrected on Veterans Day in the Mojave National Preserve.
"Judges and lawyers may have played their roles, but it was the veterans who earned this memorial, and it is for them it rises once more," The Associated Press quoted attorney Hiram Sasser of the Texas-based Liberty Institute as saying.
Henry Sandoz was taking care of the original 1930s cross as part of a promise to a dying World War I veteran, Riley Bembry.
There were about 100 people when Sandoz rededicated a new, 7-foot steel cross on the same hilltop, on Sunday, more than a decade after a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union sought to remove it.
The site, known as Sunrise Rock, is now in private hands, Veterans of Foreign Wars, thanks to a land swap with the National Park Service that ended the longstanding legal dispute. The swap, which involved an exchange with five acres of donated property elsewhere in the 1.6 million acre preserve, was officially completed on Nov. 2.
The donated land was owned by Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, of the town of Yucca Valley, California.
In its 2001 lawsuit on behalf of a retired Park Service employee, the ACLU argued that the existence of the cross on public land amounted to unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity, and managed to convince two federal courts.
A 2010 Supreme Court ruling finally paved the way for a land swap. But just weeks after the court decision, the cross, which had been covered up to comply with court injunctions, was stolen. It was found earlier this month near San Francisco with a note saying it needed to be returned to its rightful owners. However, veterans decided to dedicate its replacement.
The site will soon be fenced with entrances for visitors. A plaque stating that the cross is a memorial for U.S. war veterans will also be placed on the rock.
Meanwhile, two other crosses are under threat in the Inland Empire metropolitan area in Southern California. The city of Riverside, Calif., is discussing a similar land exchange after threats of a lawsuit over the Mt. Rubidoux cross, according to The Press-Enterprise. And a military atheist group is objecting to a proposed veterans memorial in the city of Lake Elsinore, Calif., that includes a cross.