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Dispute over Mojave cross on federal land moves closer to resolution

April 24, 2012 |  1:30 pm

Henry and Wanda Sandoz at the veterans cross in the Mojave National Preserve in 2000

The National Park Service moved one step closer Tuesday toward resolving an 11-year dispute over the display of crosses on public land in the Mojave National Preserve.

The acre of land, known as Sunrise Rock, will be exchanged for a privately owned parcel elsewhere in the preserve.

The exchange ends a series of legal and congressional battles over the 1st Amendment and the display of religious symbols on public land. Surveys and appraisals of the properties are all that remain before the exchange can be completed.

Sunrise Rock has been a site of controversy since 2001 when a former park service employee, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior requesting an injunction prohibiting the display of the cross.

In 2003, Congress directed the Secretary of the Interior to transfer the land to a private party in attempt to resolve the suit. A district court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals prohibited the transfer, but  in 2010, the Supreme Court reversed those decisions, allowing the transfer to take place.

Speaking for a divided court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the 1st Amendment calls for a middle-ground "policy of accommodation," not a total ban on symbols of faith.

Sunrise Rock will be exchanged for nearly five acres owned by Henry Sandoz, who will donate Sunrise Rock to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Since 1934, crosses have been erected on the site, south of Baker and Interstate 15 on Cima Road, and have been maintained by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in honor of American soldiers who lost their lives in World War I.

The most conspicuous cross, standing nearly eight feet high, had been maintained by Sandoz since 1983 after he made a promise to a dying friend, a World War I medic.

Once the exchange is complete, the park service will install a fence around the parcel with signs indicating the plot is private property. There will also be a plaque on Sunrise Rock describing the memorial.

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-- Thomas Curwen

Photo: Henry and Wanda Sandoz at the veterans cross in the Mojave National Preserve in 2000. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

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