A new battle has been joined over the placement of a cross on federal land in the Mojave Desert.
Federal rangers on Tuesday removed a cross erected on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert east of Baker, Calif., the same location where an earlier cross was taken down in a legal battle over whether a religious symbol should be allowed on public land.
Bill McDonald, who blogs about Mojave issues under the name Morongo Bill, said he spotted the cross Monday as he was preparing to take a hike that begins about 100 yards from Sunrise Rock.
" ... I looked and thought, 'Holy -, there is a cross there!'!" McDonald said.
In compliance with a court order that led to the removal of the original Mojave Cross -- placed on the rock in 1934 to honor soldiers who died in World War I -- the replacement will be removed, said Linda Slater, spokeswoman for the Mojave National Preserve, which is managed by the National Park Service.
Slater said park service police will investigate who erected the replacement cross and decide whether a crime was committed.
"You can't go putting things up in national parks," Slater said.
The new cross, along with one removed from Sunrise Rock last year, will be stored as evidence at a park service building in Barstow, Calif. Officials are keeping the items until a resolution is reached in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU sued in 2001 on behalf of Frank Buono, a former assistant superintendent at the Mojave National Preserve who claimed the cross was a governmental endorsement of religion.
Cross proponents say the memorial is meant not as a religious symbol but as a memorial to those who gave their lives for the country.
Under a 2004 land swap engineered by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., a single acre of land on which the cross long stood would become property of the Veterans for Foreign Wars. In return, five acres of privately held land elsewhere in the Mojave preserve would be donated to the government.
In 2007, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the land swap didn't solve the problem, concluding that merely "carving out a tiny parcel of property in the midst of this vast preserve -- like a donut hole with the cross atop it -- will do nothing to minimize the impermissible governmental endorsement" of a religious symbol.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling last year.
"Although certainly a Christian symbol, the cross was not emplaced on Sunrise Rock to promote a Christian message," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the lead opinion.
The Department of Justice and ACLU are attempting to negotiate a settlement, said Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle. U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin on Tuesday granted a 90-day extension to settle the matter by February.
As the courts batted the case back and forth, the original cross -- which the park service had covered with a wooden box -- was stolen last year. Someone replaced it with a replica a week later. The cross that showed up this week is evidence that someone is serous about keeping the monument, McDonald said.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)