A promise to a dying World War I vet was kept on Sunday as veterans gathered in the Mojave Desert to replace a memorial cross on a rocky hilltop.
A war memorial cross that once stood on a rocky hilltop in a national park before being deemed unconstitutional and ordered removed was resurrected on Veterans Day at the stunningly stark Mojave desert site, capping a landmark case for veterans fighting similar battles on public lands.
Henry Sandoz, who cared for the original 1930s cross as part of a promise to a dying World War I veteran, rededicated a new, 7-foot steel cross on the same hilltop before more than 100 people. The site is now in private hands as part of a land swap with the National Park Service that ended the longstanding legal dispute, which had become entangled in the thorny issues of patriotism and religion.
"Judges and lawyers may have played their roles, but it was the veterans who earned this memorial, and it is for them it rises once more," said attorney Hiram Sasser of the Texas-based Liberty Institute, which represented veterans in the legal fight.
The settlement approved by a federal judge in April permitted the Park Service to turn over the acre of land known as Sunrise Rock to a Veteran of Foreign Wars post in Barstow and the Veterans Home of California-Barstow in exchange for five acres of donated property elsewhere in the 1.6 million acre preserve, about a four hour-drive east of Los Angeles.
The donated land was owned by Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, of Yucca Valley.
Sandoz, 73, has cared for the memorial as a promise to World War I veteran Riley Bembry, who with other shell-shocked vets went to the desert to help heal and erected a wooden cross on Sunrise Rock in 1934. It was later replaced with a cross made of steel pipes.
Then Sunrise Rock became part of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994, putting the Christian symbol on public land.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in 2001 on behalf of a retired Park Service employee who argued the cross was unconstitutional on government property because of the separation of church and state, and federal courts ordered it removed.
Congress stepped in and ordered the land swap in 2003, but the courts rejected the transfer. The issue made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in April 2010 refused to order the cross removed. The high court directed a federal judge to review the congressional land transfer plan.
The decision was the latest on the issue by a Supreme Court that has signaled a greater willingness to allow religious symbols on public land amid a number of legal challenges in recent years by civil liberty activists and atheists.
Weeks after the 2010 court decision, the cross — which had been covered up to comply with court injunctions — was stolen. The stolen cross turned up earlier this month in the San Francisco Bay area tied to a fence post. The San Mateo County Sheriff's Department plans to return the cross.
But veterans decided to start fresh and dedicate its replacement in Sunday's ceremony, which included speeches, the Pledge of Allegiance and a bugler playing taps.
"It's there and it's going to stay there," Wanda Sandoz said. "With the land swap we don't have to worry about its fate anymore. We're happy to have it all resolved and back in place to honor the vets."
The Park Service has fenced the site, leaving entrances for visitors, and posted signs noting it is private land. A plaque stating that the cross is a memorial for U.S. war veterans now sits on the rock.