May 9, 2012
Decade-Long Fight Over Mojave Cross Ends With Land Swap
Also: Atheist groups divided on whether Rhode Island memorial cross should stay put.
A 10-year battle over a cross in the Mojave Desert has come to an end thanks to a federal judge’s final approval of a land swap.
The World War I memorial cross, erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), was at the center of a long legal conflict that eventually went to the Supreme Court.
The plan gives the acre of land where the cross has been located to two veterans’ groups in exchange for five acres of private property in the Mojave National Preserve. Congress had originally ordered the land swap in 2003, but opponents brought the case to the courts, arguing that the exchange amounted to preferential treatment.
However, in 2010 the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts, allowing the cross to remain because the transfer would resolve any constitutional concerns. The cross was stolen less than a month later; VFW has promised to replace it.
Meanwhile, another cross at the center of potential litigation will likely be moved. Last month, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Leo Fontaine, the mayor of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, arguing that a cross erected in 1921 as a World War I memorial violates the separation of church and state since it is located on city property.
John Ward, president of the city council, told the Associated Press that though he believes the cross is more of a historical symbol, the city can’t afford a lawsuit. Fontaine said the cross may be moved to a more prominent location on private property.
However, another Rhode Island atheist group says the cross ought to stay. Jason LaRose, a Woonsocket resident and the co-founder of Ocean State Atheists, told WJAR news the cross “only represents the soldiers who were killed, who were most likely Catholics.”
Christianity Today has spotlighted the Supreme Court’s tangled view of public crosses. CT also asked evangelical leaders whether the Supreme Court should consider memorial crosses as secular.