Washington, DC–An eight-foot-tall cross, planted atop a 30-foot-high rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve in California has sparked a First Amendment fight that threatens to spill again into the halls of Congress. Facing a judicial order to remove the cross, the Bush Administration is supporting a legislative move to transfer one acre of the national park to private parties so that the cross can remain.
An unusual coalition of organizations is asking Congress not to interfere with court rulings that the cross violates the First Amendment prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. In a joint letter, the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Western Land Exchange Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) contend that the proposed land transfer, sponsored by local Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-CA), “would evade the United States Constitution, set a bad precedent for our National Park System and dishonor by exclusion all of the veterans who have served our nation.”
Frank Buono, former Deputy Superintendent at the Mojave National Preserve and a PEER Board member, is the lead plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit seeking removal of the cross. On July 24, 2002, Judge Robert J. Timlin of U.S. District Court for the Central District of California permanently prohibited further display of the cross. Later that summer, Rep. Lewis unsuccessfully inserted a rider in an omnibus public lands bill that would have altered the boundaries of the Mojave National Preserve by conveying the acre of federal land where the cross stands to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Barstow.
After the Lewis rider failed, the Justice Department appealed Judge Timlin’s order to the Ninth Court of Appeals. In its request for a stay of the court removal order the Justice Department argued, among other things, that the Park Superintendent’s life would be in danger if the Park Service implemented the court order. The Justice Department did not offer any evidence of a specific threat to Superintendent Mary Martin to support this motion.
The Ninth Circuit is set to rule on the stay request in late April, just as Congress reconvenes. Rep. Lewis has pledged to find the first available legislative vehicle in which to insert the Mojave Cross rider. In the interim, the Park Service has shrouded the Mojave Cross in a canvas covering.