An alliance of atheist groups this week denounced the stealing of the Mojave Desert cross that is at the center of a nearly decade-long court battle.
"Damaging and the taking of another's property is, of course, reprehensible behavior and not to be condoned," said Stuart Bechman, president of the Atheist Alliance International, in a statement. "AAI certainly condemns that action."
Yet while the atheist alliance condemns the theft, it used the incident to call for a more inclusive war memorial to replace the Mojave cross. The missing seven-foot cross is an "unexpected opportunity" to install a monument that "all Americans can support," the organization said.
AAI pledged to raise $5,000 towards the more inclusive replacement memorial that would be installed at a private site with connection to World War I or the soldiers that died in it. The currently missing metal cross was located on public land at the Mojave National Preserve in California.
"The biggest losers in this controversy have been the memory of the World War I soldiers," said Bechman. "Let's drop the cultural battle around this memorial and restore the focus on the soldiers that the memorial is meant to honor."
Liberty Institute, the group representing those who want the cross to stay in place, reported that the war memorial cross was removed Sunday night. Several groups that support the cross have banded together to offer a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for the removal of the war memorial.
"This is outrage, akin to desecrating people's graves," said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of Liberty Institute, in a statement Tuesday. "It's a disgraceful attack on the selfless sacrifice of our veterans. We will not rest until this memorial is re-installed."
The theft of the cross occurred just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that the memorial could stay standing. The justices said "the constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society."
Since 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of former National Park Services employee Frank Buono, has been engaged in an ongoing court battle to tear down the cross. Buono and the ACLU argue the cross represents government endorsement of the Christian religion since it is on federal land.
However, the Supreme Court on April 28 ruled that the federal appeals court, which ruled that the cross violated the Establishment Clause and should be removed, did not take enough consideration to the fact that Congress has decided to transfer the land where the cross is erected to the private organization Veterans of Foreign Wars.
VFW erected the war memorial cross in 1934 to honor the sacrifices of American military personnel who died in service. Since 2002, however, the cross has been covered in a plywood box because of the legal battle.
The ACLU said it plans to take the case back to the lower courts.