The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 that a Latin cross honoring World War I veterans in southwestern California does not need to be removed or concealed from public view. The American Legion has long supported efforts to preserve the 1934-erected monument at its current location on Sunrise Rock. The American Civil Liberties Union has led efforts to remove it, contending it violates separation between church and state.
"To remove the Mojave Cross, or to conceal it inside a plywood box as it has been for several months, is a violation of free expression in itself," American Legion National Commander Clarence Hill said. "The court ruled correctly in this case. If it had gone the other way, a number of other veterans memorials and monuments around the country would be faced with similar restrictions. It's a slippery slope, and the Supreme Court acknowledged that. Removal of a religious symbol from a veterans memorial could conceivably be followed by removal of religious symbols from all government-owned or public spaces even, perhaps, veterans cemeteries.
"The American Legion has filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of our nation's veterans as the Mojave Cross case has moved through the legal system. The Legion will continue to fight for the values and freedoms veterans - like those of World War I, which the Mojave Cross honors - gave their lives for."
The Court closely mirrored The American Legion's amicus brief in ruling that "a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten."
The cross will remain concealed behind a plywood box for the time being pending a second look at the case at the U.S. District Court level. The High Court remanded the case to the U.S. District Court to give it a chance to see if any other legal alternatives exist. However, the High Court reminded the District Court that: "Respect for a coordinate branch of Government forbids striking down an Act of Congress except upon a clear showing of unconstitutionality."
The cross on Sunrise Rock had been tended to for a half-century by World War I Army medic John Riley Bembrey. He diligently kept it maintained in memory of his fallen comrades. Before he passed away in 1984, Bembrey handed that responsibility over to Henry Sandoz, an area resident who has fought to keep the cross visible to the public.
The ACLU led legal efforts to have the monument removed or concealed. A transfer of land ownership from federal ground to property owned by the Veterans of Foreign Wars did not end the dispute, and federal courts placed an injunction on the land transfer until the the Supreme Court could rule.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which has joined with the Legion and Liberty Institute in support of the cross, praised the Legion for its role in the decision.
"This is a great victory, and a testimony to the commitment and influence of The American Legion," said Joe Infranco, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund. "I honestly believe the interest generated by your involvement grabbed the Court's attention and contributed in a significant way to this victory."
Click here to read the amicus (friend of the court) brief filed by The American Legion and several other organizations.