Dateline: April 24, 2005
On top of a 30-foot-high rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve in California, stands an old rugged eight-foot-tall Latin cross that has become the latest target for groups opposed to government sponsorship of religious objects on public lands.
On July 24, 2002, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, finding the presence of the cross on federal land to be a violation of the First Amendment's separation of church and state clause, ordered the cross removed. The decision came in the case (Buono v. Norton) brought by the ACLU of Southern California.
In 2003, the U.S. Congress moved to preserve the cross in the Mojave National Preserve by enacting a one-acre land exchange that transferred the cross from federal to private ownership. Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-California) inserted the land exchange as an amendment to the massive FY 04 Defense Appropriations Act. Lewis is now the chair of the full House Appropriations Committee.
On April 5, 2005, the very same U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held that the land exchange enacted by Congress in 2003 had been a "sham" amounting to an "attempt by the government to evade the permanent injunction enjoining the display of the Latin cross" on federal land.
Unless the White House chooses to appeal District Court's April 5, 2005 ruling, the cross must ultimately be removed.
The Mojave cross is only one venue in an ongoing battle by policy advocacy groups, including the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), to end government sponsorship of religious objects on public lands:
Grand Canyon National Park restored bronze plaques bearing verses from the Psalms at park overlooks. In ordering the plaques return, the National Parks Service's Deputy Director overruled the park superintendent and apologized on official stationery to the plaques' sponsors, the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary; Last year, in a similar maneuver to the Mojave exchange, Congress authorized the establishment of a new national park system unit in order to save the Mount Soledad Cross in San Diego from court-ordered removal; and The Park Service is stalling a review of its decision to allow the sale of a creationist book contending that Noah's Flood created the Grand Canyon some 6,000 years ago, despite agency policy that it should sponsor only books that promote public education about science.
"At Mojave and other national parks, Federal dollars and resources are being illegally used to promote Christianity," said PEER Board member Frank Buono in a recent press release. "If the Park Service and the Justice Department decide to accept and not appeal this latest Mojave ruling, it may be a sign that the message is sinking in that the Constitution also applies to them."
The "Separation of Church and State" clause of the First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Its interpretation by the courts has been a source of heated debate for years.