LOS ANGELES – A veterans group can restore a memorial cross in the Mojave Desert under a court settlement that ends a decade-old legal battle, the National Park Service said Tuesday.
A federal judge approved the lawsuit settlement on Monday, permitting the park service to turn over a remote hilltop area known as Sunrise Rock to a Veteran of Foreign Wars post in Barstow and the Veterans Home of California-Barstow.
The park will give up the acre of land in exchange for five acres of donated property elsewhere in the 1.6 million acre preserve in Southern California.
The swap, which could be completed by the end of the year, will permit veterans to restore a cross to the site and end a controversy that became tangled in the thorny issues of patriotism and religion and made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.
The last cross was ordered removed by the park service in 2010 because of a court order.
The donated land is owned by Henry and Wanda Sandoz of Yucca Valley.
Henry Sandoz, 72, cared for and replaced several crosses at the hilltop site over the years that were later defaced or stolen. He has a replacement 7-foot steel cross ready to go, said his wife, Wanda, 68.
"We're very hopeful. We've been disappointed in the past," she said in a telephone interview. "We thought when the Supreme Court ruled that we'd be out there within days putting it back up. Things move kind of slow but we really think this is it this time."
Once the swap is complete, the park service will fence the site, leaving entrances for visitors, and post signs noting that it is private land. A plaque will be placed on the rock noting that it is a memorial for U.S. war veterans.
"We want to wrap this, we want to get it done," Mojave National Preserve spokeswoman Linda Slater said of the controversy. "No cross can go up until the exchange is complete."
Wanda Sandoz said a wooden cross was first erected on Sunrise Rock in 1934 by a World War I veteran, Riley Bembry. He and other shell-shocked vets had gone out to the desert to recover and would hold barbeques and barn dances near the site, she said.
Her husband knew Bembry and promised the dying vet that he would look after the cross, Wanda Sandoz said. He kept the promise for decades.
"We love the cross," she said. "It's in a beautiful spot. ... My husband is not a veteran but he feels like this is something he can do for our country."
The wooden cross was eventually replaced with one made of steel pipes. However, the site became part of the national preserve in 1994 and that meant the cross was then on public land.
The settlement involves a lawsuit filed in 2001 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a retired park service employee who argued that the Christian religious symbol was unconstitutionally located on government land. Federal courts ordered the removal of the cross.
In 2003, Congress stepped in and ordered the land swap. But the courts said the transfer was, in effect, an unacceptable end run around the constitutional problem.
The issue wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in April 2010 refused to order removal of the cross and directed a federal judge to look again at the congressional transfer plan.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, siding with the 5-4 majority, wrote that the cross evokes more than religion.
"It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten," he said.
Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the dissenters, wrote that troops killed in battle deserve to be honored, but government "cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message."
Weeks after the court decision, the metal cross — which had been covered up to comply with court injunctions — was stolen. A replica mysteriously appeared on the site, but park service officials ordered it taken down because of a court order against displaying a cross on the site.
A second lawsuit was filed last year against the federal government on behalf of the veterans. That suit pushed for the land swap and will be dropped once the exchange is complete, said Gregg Wooding of the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit legal organization that filed the suit.