A long simmering dispute over a simple cross erected over Mojave National Preserve will be resolved with a land swap expected to net the National Park Service private land inside the preserve.
On Monday the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California approved the settlement between the Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union to exchange an acre of land at Sunrise Rock for a donated parcel of equal value.
The Sunrise Rock parcel will be conveyed to the Veterans Home of California–Barstow, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #385E. Approval of the settlement is the next step in resolving issues involving Sunrise Rock, where a number of crosses have been maintained since World War I.
Sunrise Rock was included within the boundaries of Mojave National Preserve when it was established in 1994.
In 2001, a lawsuit was filed against the National Park Service requesting an injunction to prohibit the display of a cross on Sunrise Rock. A 2003 Act of Congress directed the secretary of the Interior to transfer a parcel including Sunrise Rock to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in an attempt to resolve the lawsuit.
The district court enjoined the government from implementing that Act, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's order. On April 28, 2010, the Supreme Court reversed the order. The Ninth Circuit received the Supreme Court’s judgment and remanded the case back to the district court to reconsider the land exchange.
The history of the cross, a simple unadorned one, dates to 1934, when a wooden one was raised atop Sunrise Rock in honor of Americans who died during World War I. It later was replaced by a more enduring metal cross. In 2001 Frank Buono, a former National Park Service assistant superintendent at the preserve, filed a lawsuit, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, to have the cross removed because it offended him. In a lower court ruling on the matter, a U.S. District judge ordered the cross removed, saying that it was indeed an unconstitutional federal endorsement of Christianity.
Congress became involved in the case at various times by prohibiting the National Park Service from spending money to move the cross, by designating it a national memorial in 1994, and by trying to transfer the acre of land it stood upon to a private Veterans of Foreign Wars group.
In writing on the 5-4 decision, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said the cross should not be construed as favoring one religion over another.
Approval of the agreement completes court action on the settlement. The next step is to move forward with the land exchange. A required survey of the one-acre site is complete. Appraisals of both parcels in the exchange will occur in the next few months. The National Park Service expects to complete the land exchange before the end of the year.
After the land exchange is complete, the National Park Service will install a fence around the parcel with signs indicating that the plot is private property. Two entrance areas will remain unfenced to allow access. The Park Service will install a plaque on Sunrise Rock describing this memorial commemorating American war veterans.
“We look forward to working with the Veterans of Foreign Wars in completing the land exchange,” said Mojave National Preserve Superintendent Stephanie R. Dubois. “We are requesting that everyone be patient as we complete the land exchange, and we would like to remind folks that no cross can legally be displayed until the land exchange is complete.”