A federal judge has approved a land swap that could end an 11-year legal battle over the right to display a cross memorializing war veterans in a remote part of the Mojave Desert.
U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin in California on Monday signed an order that will allow the Mojave Cross to return to Sunrise Rock. According to the settlement, the National Park Service will transfer the title for the one-acre parcel on which the cross sat to the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Barstow, Calif., in exchange for five acres of donated land.
The parcel is near the community of Cima, about 12 miles south of Interstate 15 in the Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre park established in 1994.
The VFW erected a wooden cross at the site in 1934 as a tribute to fallen World War I vets. The cross was later replaced with one made of steel pipes.
The cross stood quietly for 67 years until the American Civil Liberties Union sued in 2001, contending religious symbols shouldn’t be displayed on public land.
After a district court ruled that the cross shouldn’t be displayed on federal land, Congress passed legislation directing the Interior Department to transfer an acre of land including the cross to the VFW in exchange for a parcel of equal value.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April 2010 that the cross may stay but also sent the case back to the lower courts to review the proposed land swap. The next month, vandals tore down the 7-foot-tall cross and made off with it.
Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group that represented the VFW, said the settlement approved Monday paves the way for veterans to eventually restore the memorial. The group had launched a national awareness campaign dubbed “Don’t Tear Me Down” to bring attention to the cause.
“This is a great victory that brings the veterans one step closer to restoring this World War I memorial to its rightful place in the desert and in history," Hiram Sasser, litigation director for Liberty Institute, said in a news release. "We are pleased the government and the ACLU could resolve their remaining differences and begin the healing process for the millions of veterans who have endured this case for over a decade."
The ACLU did not immediately return a telephone call for comment.
The next step is to complete the land exchange, which could happen before the end of the year, the National Park Service said.
After the swap is finalized, the Park Service will install a fence around the parcel with signs indicating that the plot is private property.
“We look forward to working with the Veterans of Foreign Wars in completing the land exchange,” said Mojave National Preserve Superintendent Stephanie R. Dubois in a press release. “We are requesting that everyone be patient as we complete the land exchange, and we would like to remind folks that no cross can legally be displayed until the land exchange is complete.”
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