Mojave Desert Cross, Center of Supreme Court Case, Is Stolen

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A seven-foot metal cross that is intended to serve as a memorial to fallen American soldiers, and which was recently at the center of a Supreme Court case, has been stolen.

The cross, one of a series of memorial crosses which have been erected in the same spot, on federal land in the Mojave Desert, was stolen late Sunday or early Monday. It’s not yet clear what the thieves’ motivation may have been, but authorities say that suspects could include scrap metal salvagers or people with a vested interest in the controversial case.

Just two weeks prior to the theft, the United States Supreme Court said that the cross was allowed to remain on federal land. A former park service employee brought the suit a decade ago, saying that the cross violated the constitutional separation between church and state. Federal courts had ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, and refused an effort spearheaded by Congress to transfer the property to private ownership, in order to sidestep the issue. In April, the nation’s highest court ruled 5-4 that the cross should not be removed, and returned the case to the federal level for a decision on the property issue.

While the debate was ongoing, the metal cross had been covered with plywood. Vandals tore off the plywood cover this weekend; when maintenance workers went to replace it, they found that the cross itself was missing.

The United States Justice Department is investigating the case, and the American Legion, the national veterans’ group, has offered a $25,000 reward for information about the theft.

The remote site, which lies 70 miles south of Las Vegas and 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, has had a cross standing since 1934, when the Veterans of Foreign Wars honored the dead troops of World War I with a wooden cross. The metal version has been in place since the 1990s, and has been vandalized before. It has been bolted to the rock for over a decade—authorities say that the thieves cut the metal bolts in order to take the cross.

If the original cross is not recovered, its replacement may further stir the controversy, since it’s unclear whether a new cross would be protected by the recent Supreme Court ruling.

A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the former park services employee, said that although his organization feels that the cross’s presence in the Mojave Desert is unconstitutional, this does not justify its theft.

 

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