CIMA, Calif. (BP) — It has been a decade since 68-year-old Wanda Sandoz last saw the 6-foot-tall pipe cross in the Mojave Desert. She remembers when, as a school bus driver, she passed by the memorial to World War I’s fallen soldiers four times a day.
“I loved seeing it there, and I’m glad that I’d already retired when the box went on it,” she said, referring to a plywood container that covered the cross for eight years before the entire structure was stolen in 2010.
But on Veteran’s Day, after 13 years of litigation, including a U.S. Supreme Court case, Wanda and her husband Henry, 73, were finally able to fulfill a promise made to a friend in 1984 and see the cross legally reinstated on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve. The federal government completed a lengthy land transfer on Nov. 9 and Henry’s newly made pipe cross was unveiled on Sunday, Veterans Day.
“We are so, so happy that it’s going up and staying up without opposition, since the Veterans of Foreign Wars owns it now,” Wanda said. “We are so happy that it all came together and the veterans can have their memorial now.”
The original Mojave Desert cross was erected in 1934 and maintained by Riley Bembrey, a WWI veteran. When Bembrey fell ill in 1984, he asked the Sandozes to take care of the memorial, which by then had been missing for a couple of years. Henry re-erected the cross, and Wanda said they didn’t anticipate any trouble since it was a war memorial located in the middle of the desert, a four-hour drive from Los Angeles.
But Wanda remembers the day in 2000 when the park superintendent came to their house asking Henry to take down the cross after complaints about it being a religious symbol on federal land. “[Henry] refused,” Wanda recalled. “I thank God he’s a stubborn guy, because otherwise it would have been over and done, and there’d be no World War I memorial.”
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), which owned the memorial, calling the cross unconstitutional because it violated the separation between church and state. A judge in Riverside, Calif., ruled that the cross couldn’t be displayed and in 2002 the cross was covered, first with a bag, then with a plywood box.
As court proceedings continued through the years, the Sandozes continued to hold Easter services at the site, with Henry bringing his own smaller cross.
“All the years the cross was covered, I knew what was under that box and I kept thinking someday I’m going to look up and see the cross again,” said Wanda, who regarded the cross as more than just a memorial, but a reminder of what Christ went through for her sins.
After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the ACLU, the VFW figured that the only way for the cross to stand was to swap the federal land the cross was on with private land owned by the veterans group. The 9th Circuit ruled the compromise faulty, and the case was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2010, the high court ruled 5-4 that the land swap was permissible, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing, “The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.”
Days after the ruling, the cross was uprooted and stolen. Wanda said Henry immediately made another cross, but the federal government would not allow him to put it up — even with a box over it — until the land transfer had been completed.
Last Friday, the last details of the land transfer were finally worked out. Providentially, the missing cross was found in northern California and the Sandozes confirmed it is the stolen cross. Still, they planned to erect the new cross that Henry made on Sunday.
The cross was unveiled at a ceremony that included the Sandozes, members of the VFW, attorneys from Liberty Institute who provided representation in the case, and an honor guard.
“It is really a restoration of this veterans memorial that from here on forward will honor our veterans,” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel at Liberty Institute. “It’s [a feeling] of satisfaction to see it finally restored like it should be.”
Liberty Institute currently is working on other religious symbol cases, including the Mount Soledad Memorial in San Diego and the Maryland Peace Cross. Mateer said the Mojave Desert cross has set a strong precedent for a land swap in these types of cases but added that Justice Kennedy’s opinion affirmed that crosses can be displayed even without a land transfer.
Wanda Sandoz, who has been waiting for this moment for 13 years, said, “I’m just proud this one is there. I’m really proud we knew Riley [Bembrey] — he was a wonderful man — I’m so glad he was our friend and he asked us to do this for him, and we were able to.”
Angela Lu writes for World News Service, an affiliate of WORLD magazine (www.worldmag.com). Used by permission.