By Margaret Calhoun Hemenway
It would be unimaginable for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to pursue the removal of thousands of crosses in Arlington National Cemetery, situated so near the seat of the federal government in the nation’s capital and where so many of America’s veterans and honored heroes are laid to rest. Likewise, it would be seemingly unthinkable for the ACLU to try to sue to eliminate the Senate and House chaplains (both of whom are of the Christian faith), who, in accordance with longstanding tradition, open with a prayer the upper and lower chambers each day that Congress is in session.
But like the predatory wolf that searches for the lamb at the outskirts of the flock, the ACLU targeted a lone cross — a war memorial — in California’s Mojave Desert, off a desolate highway, perhaps believing it to be an easy target for removal. The ACLU was mistaken. For ten years, a battle has been waged to preserve this solitary Latin cross, first erected in 1934 to honor World War I veterans. In fact, the Mojave Desert War Memorial is our nation’s sole congressionally designated World War I memorial.
A former National Park Service (NPS) official (who now lives in the State of Oregon) objected to the cross memorial and enlisted the ACLU to sue to remove it. The justification was the ACLU’s flawed premise that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits religious symbols on public property. The Establishment Clause was meant only to protect against the creation of a state religion, such as the Church of England, but freedom of religion and free religious exercise were among the main reasons early settlers came to America — and thus, the protection of those freedoms is enshrined in the First Amendment.
Congress became engaged in the dispute, and a land-swap was arranged so that the cross could be on private rather than public land. The ACLU still objected due to its apparent hostility to crosses — to symbols of Christianity — that seems to go far beyond just its pretext of objections to religious symbols placed on public property. When the fight over the cross was appealed, the cross, shamefully, was covered by a box of plywood at the directive of a federal judge.
On April 28, 2010, the Supreme Court reviewed the case, Salazar v. Buono, and ruled in favor of the memorial’s supporters. The high court reversed the Court of Appeals, which had invalidated Congress’s land swap arrangement to preserve the Mojave memorial cross, and SCOTUS remanded the case for further proceedings.
Then, on Sunday, May 9, the cross memorial was dragged off its high ridge by thieves using bolt cutters — an act that constituted a felony crime. The Congress, in a recent unanimous vote, condemned this theft as a “repulsive act” and an insult to the brave men and women in the Armed Forces who gave their lives to defend America. It also called upon the National Park Service to work to recover the cross.
As yet, the Park Service has not found the perpetrators. A replica was installed in place of the purloined cross and quickly was dismantled by the Park Service, which insists that the original cross is the only one that can be erected. The stolen cross, however, was not the original 1934 cross, so the NPS’s insistence that only the stolen cross can be erected lacks any rationale.
In mid-June, veterans groups representing 23 million American veterans wrote to President Obama, urging him to direct the National Park Service to return the cross to its resting place in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling. The letter was never answered, but a recent open letter signed by many prominent Americans and distinguished veterans has renewed the demand to resurrect the cross.
Yet in August, as the Mojave Desert cross supporters surely noticed, President Obama jumped into the heated fray over the controversy of a mosque to be built at Ground Zero in New York City. He said that Americans should support this mosque because of our belief in freedom of religion. As reported by the AP, Obama proclaimed, “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” The mosque would be situated on private property — exactly the long-term solution envisioned by Congress to protect the Mojave Desert Cross memorial. Why is Mr. Obama silent on the Mojave War Memorial cross when he is happy to proclaim in an internationally televised speech his support of a controversial mosque that many would identify by the choice of locale with the slaughter of nearly three thousand Americans?
It is nothing short of astonishingly politically inept for Obama to snub organizations representing millions of American veterans and decline to respond to their appeal for his intervention on behalf of the only congressionally designated World War I memorial. Obama has the authority today, as head of the Executive Branch and Commander-in-Chief, to direct a recalcitrant National Park Service to restore a replica of the stolen war memorial cross in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling. If he believes in the exercise of free religion as a constitutional right of all Americans, and that official monuments and tributes to America’s war dead deserve protection, he will surely gladly intervene immediately on behalf of the cross memorial.
America’s veterans — men and women who for generations have defended the civil liberties of this great nation — are asking Mr. Obama to restore this cross to its desert home. Will he answer their plea, or will he, by his silence, make them believe that his policy on religious freedom favors mosques over crosses?