WASHINGTON, DC - May 23 - The seven-year battle to force the National Park Service to remove a giant cross from the middle of the Mojave National Preserve is nearing an end, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has rejected yet a fourth attempt by the Bush administration’s Justice Department to keep displaying the cross against claims that doing so violates First Amendment prohibitions against government endorsement of religion. The cross must now come down unless the Justice Department appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The latest in an unbroken string of adverse rulings came on May 14, 2008 when the Ninth Circuit turned back a Justice Department petition to reconsider (rehear en banc) its September 2007 decision striking down a congressionally mandated land exchange to save the cross as a “a sham” and a transparent “attempt by the government to evade the permanent injunction enjoining the display of the Latin cross” on federal land. In its latest ruling, the appeal court reached an “undeniable conclusion that the government’s purpose in this case is to evade the injunction to keep the cross in place…”
This decision found improper an act of Congress that mandated an exchange that would convey one acre of federal land inside the Preserve containing the “the Mojave Cross National Memorial” into private hands. This exchange provision was added by Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) to the 2003 Defense Appropriations Act. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the purpose of the land exchange was to preserve the cross, the presence of which on national park land violates the First Amendment:
“…carving out a tiny parcel of property in the midst of this vast Preserve – like a donut hole with the cross atop of it – will do nothing to minimize the impermissible government endorsement.”
In 1998, the current eight-foot metal cross was bolted onto rocks on a rise in the Preserve. In 1999, prompted by a demand from the ACLU of Southern California, former NPS Superintendent Mary Martin met with the private person responsible for the cross and asked if he would remove it. He refused and defiantly vowed to put the cross back if removed. Taking “no” for an answer, Ms. Martin acquiesced. At the same time Ms. Martin denied a request from another party to install a Buddhist stupa (domed shrine) at the cross site, threatening the individual with citation or arrest if he attempted to place a stupa on park land. For the District and Circuit Courts, there was no question of unconstitutional conduct, in part, because the NPS restricted the site to symbols of only one religion.
“The Bush administration and its congressional allies have tried every contortion to safeguard this undeniably Christian symbol and, in so doing, tarnish our constitution,” stated PEER Board member Frank Buono, the former deputy superintendent of Mojave National Preserve who brought the suit, noting that the legal arguments marshaled by the government could have undermined Park Service authority over private lands inside parks. “It is time for the Justice Department to stop this inane crusade.”
The Mojave Cross is one of several instances in which the Bush administration has pushed Christian displays and creationist interpretations in national park facilities – an effort PEER calls “Faith-Based Parks.”
Read the Ninth Circuit ruling in Buono v. Kempthorne
Look at a history of the Mojave Cross litigation
See other instances of Bush administration “Faith-Based Parks”