Written By Cherilyn Crowe

After a legal battle spanning more than a decade, a settlement has paved the way for a cross to return to a hilltop in the Mojave National Preserve by transferring land from government to private ownership.

On April 23, a federal judge approved a settlement allowing the National Park Service to turn over an area of land in the Mojave Desert that previously displayed a cross to a post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In exchange, the park service will receive five acres of donated property at a different location in the 1.6 million acre preserve in California.

A cross was first erected on the plot of land, known as Sunrise Rock, by a World War I veteran in 1934. Originally made of wood, it was later replaced with a cross made of steel pipes and maintained by the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a memorial to American soldiers who died in World War I. In 1994, the site became part of the Mojave National Preserve, meaning it was then on public land.

In 2001, Frank Buono, a Catholic and a retired National Park Service employee, filed suit, claiming the display of the Christian symbol on government land violated the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion. Congress intervened with a series of actions including land transfers that effectively preserved the cross in the preserve. After a series of court decisions, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the land transfer.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision in the case (Salazar v. Buono), deciding only that the lower court was wrong to bar Congress’ transfer of a parcel of government-owned land to a private owner who would maintain it, with the justices disagreeing over their reasons why. The case was sent back to the lower courts to re-evaluate previous injunctions. In the case, the BJC filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending Buono’s right to file the suit.

The cross, hidden by a wooden cover since 2002, remained standing. However, both the cover and then the cross were stolen days after the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling. The park service later removed a replica cross erected at the site because that cross was not covered by the court decision.

This settlement will give Sunrise Rock to the Veterans Home of California-Barstow, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #385E. After the land swap is complete, the veterans will be permitted to restore a cross to the site. The National Park Service will put a fence around the site with entrances for visitors, post signs noting that it is private property and place a plaque on Sunrise Rock to describe the memorial commemorating American war veterans.

The National Park Service expects to complete the land exchange before the end of the year.

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