PRESS RELEASE

COURT STRIKES DOWN LAND EXCHANGE TO PRESERVE MOJAVE CROSS

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Washington, DC — A Congressionally mandated land exchange to place an eight-foot-tall
cross, planted atop a 30-foot-high rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve
in California, in private hands is invalid, according to a federal court decision
released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As
a result, the five-year legal fight to remove the cross from federal land will
succeed, unless the Bush Administration once again seeks appellate court review.

In a ruling issued on April 5, 2005, Judge Robert J. Timlin of U.S. District
Court for the Central District of California held that a one-acre land exchange
enacted by Congress in 2003 to place the cross in private hands and thus shield
it from previous court orders for removal was “a sham” and a transparent
“attempt by the government to evade the permanent injunction enjoining
the display of the Latin cross” on federal land. Local Congressman Jerry
Lewis (R-CA) had inserted the unusual land exchange in the massive FY 04 Defense
Appropriations Act. Lewis is now the chair of the full House Appropriations
Committee.

PEER Board member Frank Buono, the former assistant superintendent at Mojave
National Preserve, is the lead plaintiff in the case (Buono v. Norton) brought
by the ACLU of Southern California. Judge Timlin permanently enjoined the Secretary
of the Interior and all National Park Service officials from implementing the
exchange and further directed these officials to carry out the court’s
July 24, 2002 order that the cross be removed.

“This case is about whether government officials may place their religious
preferences above the law,” stated Buono, who led a coalition including
the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America and conservation groups
in opposing Lewis’ land exchange rider. “In matters of religion,
federal officials’ oaths to uphold the Constitution seem to take a holiday.”

The fight at Mojave is only the latest development in a wide-ranging campaign
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, NPS 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 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,” Buono added.
“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.”

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Read
the Federal District Court decision

Look
at Bush Administration efforts to push Christianity in national parks

View
the ACLU of Southern California press release