World War I Memorial Stolen: VFW Sue for its Return

Mojave Desert Memorial Cross shrouded in box

by Levi Newman on January 12, 2011

Some war memorials are popular.  The Vietnam Veterans Wall and World War II memorials among the most recognized.  How about the only World War I memorial which Congress recognizes as a national monument, ever heard of it?  Known as the Mojave Desert Memorial Cross, this memorial was erected in 1934 by veterans of World War I to honor their fallen brothers in arms.  It is so little known that the top return in a Google search by its name is the Wikipedia page for the memorial.  Compared to the deservingly large and elaborate memorials popularly known, this World War I monument is simply a seven foot tall steel cross tucked away in the Mojave Desert.  It has stood as a local pillar of strength and remembrance to all to drive past it.

The land on which the memorial stands was federally acquired and designated as a national preserve.  About ten years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued for the removal of the memorial.  They proposed that because the memorial was a cross, if it was allowed to stand on government owned land, this indicted that the government endorsed the Christian religion.  This would have been a breach of the separation of church and state and therefore unconstitutional, they argued.  The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and ruled the memorial to be dismantled and removed from federal lands.

In 2002, in an effort to preserve the memorial, Congress traded the one acre of land on which the memorial stood for five acres of privately donated land.  The official process never finished though, because the 9th Circuit Court intervened, saying that this transfer was unconstitutional as well.  In 2006, the memorial was ordered covered in a plywood box, to prevent anyone from viewing and misinterpreting its meaning.  Last year though, the U.S. Supreme court overturned this ruling, by a narrowly won vote, declaring that the memorial did not represent government endorsement of religion, but instead was a long standing memorial to our countries war veterans, as it was originally intended.

This was a hard won victory for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the Liberty Institute, who had taken up the case for the California VFW.  Two weeks after this Supreme Court ruling, a tragic blow was dealt to these groups, our veterans, and all those who support our veterans. On the night of May 9th, 2010, the memorial cross was stolen by vandals.  Under the Veterans Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003, this is no small act of vandalism, but is considered a federal crime.

The VFW has asked President Obama to assist in the re-establishment of the memorial, but so far, all of their requests have been either ignored or denied.  When the VFW turned to the National Park Service, they were informed that because of the controversy over the memorial being a cross, only the original memorial, because it was declared OK by the Supreme Court, could be legally erected, a replacement could not be built.

The VFW has decided to take more drastic action.  They are suing President Obama’s Administration.  Part of the lawsuit calls for the government to enforce the land transfer, which has still not been completed.  If the transfer were finalized, the memorial would stand on privately owned land, and would therefore have no barring in government endorsement of a religious symbol.

The Liberty Institute is continuing to assist the California VFW in its efforts with this decade long legal battle.  It has established a website to encourage any who are in support of this veterans memorial to sign their name in support of returning and allowing the eternal standing of this World War I veterans memorial, the Mojave Desert Memorial Cross.  Despite its small size, this memorial stands for the same bravery, sacrifice, and dedication of war veterans that all other war memorials represent, and therefore deserves the same reverence.

Photo thanks to Chazz Layne under creative common license on Flickr.

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