Published May 19, 2010
One week after vandals stole a looming cross from California's Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial, the site's caretakers welded together an exact 7-foot replica to take its place. All they need now is permission to put it back up.
Henry and Wanda Sandoz, the retired Californians who have watched over the World War I memorial since 1984, are waiting for word from the Department of Justice on whether they can replace the cross that once stood on the park's Sunrise Rock, which is sitting barren for the first time in 76 years.
And, in an ironic development, the theft of the cross could provide an avenue for its unchallenged return, according to a lawyer involved in a contentious legal debate about whether it violates the separation of church and state.
After unknown thieves used bolt cutters to remove the pipe-metal cross from its desert perch this month, the Sandozes drove 140 miles from their home to visit the national preserve on Saturday and begin reconstructing the memorial.
"He spent the whole day Saturday working on it ... and he has a heart condition," Wanda Sandoz said of her 71-year-old husband. "But this is just really important to him. He wasn't going to rest until he had made that cross."
But their efforts may be in vain because the National Park Service is demanding that the Sandozes wait for a ruling in a court battle over whether a Christian symbol can stand on federal property -- a fight that has already lasted a decade.
The Supreme Court decided in April to allow the cross to remain, but it remanded the case to a district court to determine whether the pinewood boards that had covered the memorial for years might finally be removed.
"The park service isn't going to allow anybody to put up a cross while the case is still in litigation," said National Park Service spokeswoman Linda Slater.
She said that no replacement is likely to go up as long as the land remains in federal hands, even though the cross and memorial predate government ownership of the land.
"The Park Service doesn't allow memorials to be put up on Park lands," she said.
The Mojave Desert became a national park in 1994, some 60 years after a wooden cross was established on the site to honor U.S. troops who died in World War I. Henry Sandoz, who is only the second caretaker of the site, replaced the wooden cross with metal pipes in the 1980s.
His wife Wanda, a retired school bus driver, said she used to drive past the cross several times a day, so much so that it became part of the park's natural scenery. But in 2002, it was ordered to be covered up while the courts debated its legality.
Then, suddenly, this month, there was nothing there at all. When she and her husband returned last weekend, she said, they avoided the site and took alternate roads.
"I cannot imagine seeing that rock" laid bare, she told FoxNews.com. "I don't want to see the site without the cross there."
But some legal experts say the theft of the cross could actually end up bringing about a quick resolution to the crisis, and render moot the drawn-out legal process.
In 2005, Congress transferred the land on which the cross sits to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for another piece of land within the preserve. Lower courts struck down that provision, as it was deemed a back-door violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
But without a cross on the property, it could render moot the legal challenges put forward by the American Civil Liberties Union concerning the separation of church and state.
"There's an interesting possibility," said Hiram Sasser, the director of litigation at the Liberty Legal Institute, which is representing the VFW in the case.
"If there's no cross there, does that mean that the land transfer goes through, it becomes property of the VFW, and we can put the cross back up?" he said. "The case could essentially be over."
The ACLU is still vowing to press its case in court, even though the offending cross is no longer there.
"The ACLU continues to maintain that the cross is unconstitutional and that the land transfer did not remedy the violation of the Establishment Clause," said Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.
"However, the proper way to protest an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion is through the court system, not through vandalism, and we will continue to challenge the cross through litigation."
Wanda Sandoz said that she and her husband are bothered by the moratorium, but they have agreed to await a decision from the Justice Department.
"It seems like we should be able to [restore the cross] even if we had to put the box on. We're not OK with that, but we would understand that that's the way it had to be," she said.
Sandoz told FoxNews.com that no matter how much she and her husband hate to see the memorial ripped down, they will not violate any orders against replacing the cross.
"We feel like if we did that, then we'd be no better than the people that took it," she said. "We have to abide the law, like it or not."