Mojave Cross


TIM O’BRIEN, correspondent: If you ever wondered where the middle of nowhere really is, it just might be right here: the Mojave Preserve in southern California. At 1.6 million acres, it is vast. Some find it beautiful, some even sacred. Slightly more than 90 percent of the preserve is owned by the federal government and maintained by the National Park Service. In 1934, the Death Valley chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars put up a cross here to honor American soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. But the cross is now encased in a plywood box as a result of a lawsuit brought by Frank Buono, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union.

FRANK BUONO: I want the cross on every Catholic church. I want the cross in my home. But I don’t want the cross to be permanently placed on federal government public lands or any other public lands for that matter.

Frank Buono

O’BRIEN: Seventy-year-old Henry Sandoz has been taking care of the cross for the last 26 years. His best friend, a World War I medic on his death bed had exacted a promise from Sandoz back in 1983 to do so.

(to Henry Sandoz): Why is it so important?

HENRY SANDOZ: Well, because of my word to my friend that I would maintain it. To me it means a whole lot.

O’BRIEN: Buono persuaded federal courts in California that the cross unconstitutionally promotes the Christian faith, a claim Henry Sandoz says he just doesn’t get.

HENRY SANDOZ: It shouldn’t mean no more than a memorial to the veterans, and also, when you see a cross on the highway you don’t necessarily—and I don’t either—think about that cross aspect, like you’re saying, well, somebody died there. That’s the meaning I think most people have out of it, or should have.

O’BRIEN: The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, found putting the display on public land violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from advancing religion. The decision outraged many veterans and triggered a public relations campaign on their behalf by the Dallas-based Liberty Legal Institute:

(Video produced by Liberty Legal Institute): “Our veterans stood for us. Now that their memorials are under attack around the country, are you willing to stand with them?”

O’BRIEN: Attorney Kelly Shackelford, who runs the Liberty Legal Institute, says the cross is all about honoring the nation’s war dead and has nothing to do with promoting religion:

KELL SHACKELFORD (Liberty Legal Institute): Well, I mean, if this cross goes down, because it’s a memorial in the middle of the desert, if you have to tear down a seven-foot cross in the middle of 1.6 million acres of desert, what do you have to do at Arlington Memorial Cemetery with a 24-foot-tall cross? This would literally affect almost every community in our country, because they all have veterans’ memorials, and a lot of those have religious imagery that’s attached to those.

O’BRIEN (to Frank Buono): What about Arlington National Cemetery?

FRANK BUONO: Oh, wonderful. You know, there’s probably no better place to express one’s religious beliefs than in a cemetery. This is not a cemetery.

Henry Sandoz

O’BRIEN: At least on the surface Frank Buono, a transplanted New Yorker, would appear to be an unlikely plaintiff in such a case. He helped run the Mojave Preserve in the mid-nineties as an assistant superintendent, and he is a practicing Catholic. The walls of his home are lined with crucifixes and other religious symbols, and Buono rankles at the suggestion that the purpose of the Mojave cross is solely to remember the nation’s war dead.

FRANK BUONO: What really disturbs me is the argument that somehow the cross is a secular symbol. I can’t think of anything more offensive to a Christian, to a Catholic, that the cross is a secular symbol. They say, well, it’s a secular symbol of death and sacrifice, and I say, well, only to the extent that it symbolizes the death and sacrifices of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross is a symbol of death and sacrifice, and believe me, I think to a Muslim, to a Jew, to a Hindu, to a Buddhist the cross is no such symbol of death and sacrifice.

O’BRIEN: The furor, if not the rage, the case has generated has not been lost on Buono.

(to Frank Buono): We’ve seen interviews with the people in that little town.

BUONO: Yeah.

O’BRIEN: They want to string you up.

BUONO: Oh, I have been told, though I try to avoid the sites, that if you go on the Internet and put my name in you’ll get people saying incredible things about me. Even within my own family I’ve had some people say, what are you doing? This is the cross, you’re a Catholic, and what are you…

O’BRIEN: Buono’s case also got the attention of the U.S. Congress and Representative Jerry Lewis, whose 41st congressional district includes the Mojave Preserve. Lewis introduced legislation that would have transferred the land on which the cross was located to a private veterans group in hopes of circumventing the constitutional question the cross raised.

REP. JERRY LEWIS (R-Calif.): We’ve attempted by way of the amendments and the appropriations process to first allow there to be a property exchange. Because we were fighting a battle with endless lawyers of ACLU, it seemed to us it was important to set aside the question as early as possible to preserve the cross itself.

O’BRIEN: Lewis’s bill allowed the Interior Department to take the land back should the cross ever be removed, prompting the lower courts to find the transaction a “sham.” Buono has now moved away from the Mojave Preserve—almost 500 miles away—to a small town in Arizona not far from the Mexican border, so far away that the Interior Department says Buono no longer has a real stake in the case. The department has asked the Supreme Court to throw out Buono’s complaint because his only real injury is that “he must observe government conduct with which he disagrees.”

post01(to Frank Buono): What’s it to you? You live 500 miles away.

FRANK BUONO: Whether I’m 500 miles away or five feet away from it, the fact of the matter is that that land is land that I own, that’s land that you own; that’s federal public lands. It belongs to everyone, and so it matters to me that the lands that are held in common by the United States do not become the venues for sectarian religious expressions, even of my own religious expressions.

O’BRIEN: Legal scholars say this case has at least the potential to be the most important religion case to reach the Supreme Court in decades. But there have been many cases involving religious displays on public property. What makes this case so different may have less to do with the case itself than with the court that will decide it. The justices have long been sharply split on religion questions, often dividing 5-4. The addition of three new justices in the last four years could change everything. Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine.

PROFESSOR ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: I think there are five votes on the current court that want to dramatically change the law with regard to the wall that separates church and state. These five justices—Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito—don’t believe that there’s a wall that separates church and state.

O’BRIEN: No decision is likely from the High Court for several months in a case that could have momentous consequences for the country, notwithstanding its simple beginnings arising out of Henry Sandoz’s pledge to a dying friend 26 years ago.

HENRY SANDOZ: You know, to me—I guess it’s really great, but I’m just kind of a hick, I guess you’d say, a country person, and it’s really out of the ordinary for me.

O’BRIEN: The words “separation of church and state” do not appear anywhere in the Constitution. The First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion would surely require at least some separation—but how much? This reconstituted Supreme Court today appears poised to reconsider that crucial question.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Tim O’Brien in Washington.

  • Suzanne Ramos

    Mary, This must be the story you heard about. I don’t think it would include cemeteries. xo, Suzanne

  • E Myers

    As a Christian I feel one of my jobs is to win folks to Christ by my example and words, to let them know the benifits and they will come to Christ if it’s to be.
    I’ve watched a lawsuit about the Ten Commandments hanging in my county’s courthouse carried to conclusion (all the way to the Supreme Court)that the Ten Commandments couldn’t hang there in the hall, it could sit on an employee’s desk or hang on someone’s wall, but had to have other religions represented if it were to hang in the hall. I might not have the conclusion exactly right.
    But what I really noticed was that the paying of lawyers to support this lawsuit drained hundreds of thousands of dollars from the county’s budget (our county commissioners loaned the money to pay the lawyers – is that even leagal?) and I got the impression that this was the goal of the lawsuit rather than a problem with the religious matter.
    It also seems that this lawsuit was used by some to sell copies of the ten commandments for front yards and framed copies of the United States Constitution to hang on walls.
    Meanwhile the same commissioners laid water lines to properties to make them more hospitable for developement while other folks in the county still have bad water.
    I guess what I’m wondering is if what’s going on in the Mohave is an extention of what went on here.

  • Cheri

    Get a life Mr. Buono. Why don’t you put some of this time and energy, which you are wasting, to something good. Homeless shelters, youth groups, senior centers all need volunteers. Your time would be well spent doing something positive for the community than demanding a cross, that means nothing to you but does to thousands of WWI veterens, be removed from public land.

  • Sally

    THANK YOU Frank Buono !
    The Mojave Desert is not the place to put a World War Memorial.
    The Christian Cross is not a symbol of fallen for everyone.
    Isn’t that one of the reasons we’ve fought in the last number of international battles ? . . . . So people could worship as they chose without governments pushing any beliefs on citizens . . . so the values of some are not valued more than the values of others . . . so the rights of individuals are not undermined by the power of the majority or the powerful . . .
    The rights of the individuals must be maintained or the rights of the masses are lost.

  • Chris

    The cross was not unique to Christ’s death. For hundreds if not thousands of years before Christ’s death, the cross was long associated with death, and in particular crucifiction or being put to death. I also pay taxes like Mr. Buono and I can clearly see the difference between marking a church and marking a grave or memorial. His argument does not hold water. Consider that it was the DEATH Valley VFW that built the cross and the park accepted it in 1934. I cannot see in any way that the VFW was sanctioning any one religion when it was placed, just honoring the those who died so that we could enjoy the freedom of a National Park to begin with. The ACLU is never interested in banishing anything other than any sign or reference other than those even remotely associated by anyone with regards to Christianity. My name is Christopher, the firt six letters happen to spell Christ, so does the ACLU wish to ban me from all public parks too? Look up your history of the cross, it has more than just one meaning.

  • jef

    Cheri, you should read the Constitution and the story. He didn’t do anything until they told him he couldn’t put a Budhist memorial there. Thats just wrong.

  • moe

    The supreme court has better things to do then waste time on this. Can’t the public chip in and buy the land?

  • Jimboy

    Most people are clueless. It is not about the cross as long as other religious symbols are allowed on public lands. The problem is, right now, only the cross is allowed.

  • Katie

    The cross needs to stay!! Final word

  • Jim

    They say, well, it’s a secular symbol of death and sacrifice, and I say, well, only to the extent that it symbolizes the death and sacrifices of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross is a symbol of death and sacrifice,That is what Buono says. Well if he would look into the actual history there were people who have died on the cross before Jesus Christ and there are some who have died after Jesus Christ. The religious groups have adopted the cross after it already symbolized death and sacrifice. So why does he beleive it is only a religious symbol. The cross was here before religion had any thing to do with it.

  • Jim

    They say, well, it’s a secular symbol of death and sacrifice, and I say, well, only to the extent that it symbolizes the death and sacrifices of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross is a symbol of death and sacrifice, that is what Buono says. That fact remains the cross does symbolize death and sacrifice and not just of Jesus Christ. People died on the cross before and after Jesus Christ so it would seem the religious sector has adopted the cross with the meaning of death and sacrifice. The cross was not the symbol of just Jesus Christ but of all who have died.

  • George McElhannon

    I cannot beleave what people are trying to do to this country of ours. For years and years we were able to pray in schools and public events and show our love for our God and country. What hav we turned into. I hope we all pay attention to this comment. I do not remember who made it but it is so true: I would rather live as though there was a God and die and find out there was not, than to live as though there was not a God and die and find out there was.

    The cross for me stands for the love and sacrifice that God showes for his people. Let it say the same for those that gave there lives for our country. May God bless this grate nation and not remove his protective hand.

  • stacey

    Mr. Buono is a catholic. enough said.

  • stacey

    Actually, we should have a symbol of the Ark there. more hopeful.

  • Robert


  • JWorsley

    It has been there since 1934 as a remembrance of those who died in service to this country….it would be a travesty for it not to be allowed to remain….
    We are becoming a society that will be frozen from action for fear of affending someone if this kind of MESS is allowed to continue, when are we going to say enough and put a stop to it.

  • Andrea K.

    I am concerned about how little the public knows about this case. The outcome of this case will be pivitol for our “religious” liberties in the future. You think it won’t apply to cemeteries but eventually it will. All it takes is for the precedent to be set…and then watch out! We will either be allowed to keep our public crosses or loose them (or other religious sayings i.e. “In God we trust.”) I am a proud American and a Christian. My father fought in the Korean War as an Army Ranger for our freedom and civil liberties. My we not forget our roots- our founding leaders established this country on religious principles. Another important factor- the words “separation from church and state” are not in the Constitution. It will be a disgrace to remove the cross for what it symbolizes. We will also dishonor those who put it there in 1934 for WWI vets and all who have died serving our country.

  • Bertie

    The cross is a symbol of suffering, shame and
    salvation…for Christians…Ok, so Mr. Buono, this
    cross is on land owned by you…well, it’s on my
    land also…and all other citizens of USA..
    and majority should rule…I believe you would
    be happier in Mexico…You agree that it is ok to
    place crosses in cemeteries, well this cross does
    represent service personnel who gave their lives
    for freedoms of which we have in this country…therefore you could classify this as a
    symbol memorializing our veterans as is represented
    by crosses placed on graves of veterans all over
    the world. So, if you think about it…this could
    represents a cemetery, therefore this cross is on
    the graves of thousands of service personnel…
    The only separation of Church and State will
    be the RAPTURE and I do hope you will be ready
    for that glorious day when Jesus returns to
    rapture up his Church of believers…Amen

    therefore you could say
    this is a cemetary and a cross was placed on it.

  • Julia

    Our CROSSES are being attacked by “modernism” who are scared to insult the few. The majority of Americans do not give a damn about how this “separation of church & state” are being debated and bringing on fat lawyers. Look at the beautiful lighted cross in Honolulu. That too came down. Lord help your people as they fidget over your Cross and ours, your people.

  • George

    Did you notice that the more we eliminate religious rights/speech/symbols from schools, public land, etc. the more turmoil and confrontation we have in the predominately Christian U.S. of A

  • mo_ky_fellow

    Mr Buono sounds like the typical Nationl Park Employee. I have found most of them to be aloft and know it allers. To him, it does not matter that most US citizens oppose what he says and is doing. To him, whatever he thinks, is right. I believe that I think what he thinks is wrong!

  • Michael C.

    What kind of person would even consider taking down a memorial that was put there to HONOR those who fought and died for this country? Who cares if its a cross! I just don`t understand why there are people in this world who hate God so much that it just eats them up inside to even see a cross? Why would you hate so much the only hope you have? But the point is, is that 75 years ago this was a symbol that our vets was greatly honored to have put up for them! To thank them and let them know everytime they see it, that we the american people remember their great sacrifice for all of us! But now???? I hope you find Gods mercy sir. I Really Do! But what your doing (and everyone like you) Is Just Plain WRONG! But go ahead and hate! Someday there will be a day of judgement!

  • Earl

    What about my rights, I like crosses as they show to some degree what religion is about. I am a veteran and will be buried in a National Cemetary and there better be a cross at the head of my grave. It shows what faith I had in life. It has nothing to do with government. You will have a realy bad time to take down all symbols of religion including the memorial walls in many communities. As a good catholic I recommend that you give more and take a lot less.

  • Kathe W

    It was originally erected by veterans: let it stand. Majority rules: take a vote.

  • thomas

    Can the people who want the cross get some kind of protection under it being a historical land mark since it was put up so many years ago. Is Mr. Bouno just another disgruntled ex employee who wants to make trouble. How long was he employed there was the cross ok with him when he was gainfully employed and only became an issue after he left? Tell him to put up a buddhist memorial if he can find any buddhist that served in WWI.

  • Barb

    Seeing as this is Public Land,I am a United States citzen,born and bred that my voice to keep the cross standing in honor of all our deceased veterans should be heard and what better place for our government to have it for all to see.Hey especially when they do not have to worry about allocating funds for it. Wake up America/USA

  • Debbie

    Mr. Buono, Elena Kagan, and all others who want this cross removed, The United States of America was founded on Christianity, “Separation of Church and State” was meant to keep the State from having any power over the Church or trying to tell the church what to do. If you truly researched you would see that. God was put first in our Government. These other people who came to OUR Country which brought Buddhism, Muslim, and other religions to our nation came much later. I wish they would either go back to thier oringinal countries, or at least quit trying to change our heritage. At the time of WWI, I can guarantee that our nation still held the cross dear to their hearts as a symbol of what our country was founded on. Any relatives of these precious soldiers who layed thier life down for our country at the time of WWI would have been honored to have a cross placed in their memory.
    Buono — quit trying to take away our heritage, and stop dishonoring those who truly died for our beloved country, by taking down a memorial placed there from the heart, showing love and honor to those who gave thier life. Even if by small chance one of those soldiers was not Christian, I believe it still would hurt them that someone would stir up such a mess over a memorial honoring them and their bravery. If you people who brought in these other religions which our Country was not founded on would just accept the hospitality of our nation and if you want to worship Budda or whoever thats fine but don’t mess with our Country’s heritage. It should always be honored. If you can’t handle that fact
    go back to the country of your origin where that is the religion founded there. Don’t they shun you in those countries if you change your religion and worship GOD–or even kill you in some of those nations? You should just be happy that we do offer you freedom of religion. Quit trying to mess up our freedom to have placed this Cross as a memorial honoring them who gave their lives for Our Country. I pray that our Nation’s leaders will have enough wisdom to
    see the dishonor to our nation by people like you.

  • Brownian

    It’s quite amazing how important tradition is when it concerns a 75-year-old cross, but how little it means when it concerns a 218-year-old Bill of Rights.

    Wake up America indeed.

  • Laura Roberts

    Lets hold on and read the article. This came about when someone wished to also erect a buddist shrine in the same place to honor our Buddist military members. They were denied. This is the very heart of the matter. Many talk of Arlingon Cemetary, yes it has crosses, but it has other religious symbols represented as well on the tombstones of our fallen. My Father and Grandfather were Military vets, neither one of them were Christian. What about them. Also, the Veterens Administration has lost their battle against allowing the Pentical or Wiccan symbol of belief on government grave markers. This case was brought forward by the families of a Korean War vet and a fallen Iraq vet.
    “On April 23, 2007, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) finally added the Pentacle, symbol of the Wiccan religion and related forms of Paganism, to its list of emblems of belief that can be included on the grave markers it issues to honor deceased veterans who have served in the US military. The Veteran Pentacle Quest lasted nearly a decade and met with success as a result of the settlement of the Circle Sanctuary vs. Nicholson federal lawsuit, filed in the US District Court of the Western Wisconsin District on November 13, 2006 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, representing Circle Sanctuary and others.’

    The fact remains that the cross is a symbol of the Christain faith. I respect their right to erect a symbol of that faith to honor their war heros, but if a Buddist, Pagan, Universalist, or any other denomination also wished to erect a symbol of their faith for their fallen war heros on the same land it must be allowed. If not, then the cross must be moved or a more appropriate memorial be erected in its place.

  • Neely

    Mr . Buono should be ashamed of himself. I am a practicing Catholic and cannot believe that he brought this lawsuit. He should not claim to be a Catholic and I am ashamed that he is claiming this as his religion. This cross was put up to simply honor the men who fought and died in WWI. I am appalled how people take such a kind gesture of respect and twist and turn the meaning so that we are now wasting tax payer dollars on silly lawsuits. You should hang your head in shame Mr. Buono.

  • Raye Matovich

    Being the Wife, Daughter, Granddaughter, Niece, and Cousin of American Veterans
    I am Proud of my Family ties to the Navy, Army and Air force.
    Geez.. I have seen lots of crosses all along the highway where families pay tribute to friends and loved one who died in an accident and one can see tributes in Cemeteries.

    It is a tribute for goodness sakes not a religious statement. These Men put their lives on the line and put their families aside to in sure that we could sit here and have a discussion like this.. And the Land is no longer government owned
    Guess I’ll step off my soapbox now

  • Dian

    What about all those veterans who may not have believed in a god who died on a cross. The American flag would be a much better suted marking of remembrance for those who gave thier lives for this country. A flag would emcombass those of all beliefs who make up our country’s citizenship. There is no need to confuse the two issues of patriotism and religion.

  • cathy

    On Judgement Day, Christ will not ask if you wanted the cross in the middle of the desert to stand or be removed!!! This senseless debate is but a trick of the Enemy!!!!

  • Elaine

    Mr. Buono are you sure this is how you want to use your 15 minutes of fame? I support leaving the cross alone as there are other issues in our country that are much more important and should be addressed. To those who state that the majority of people would prefer the cross stay put, I want to remind you that our forefathers wanted a government of laws (republic) not of mob rule (democracy). Mr. Buono wants to use the part of the constitution that where government cannot endorse a religion. Why doesn’t anyone ever read the part about the government not prohibiting the expression of religion.

  • John

    For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. I Cor 1:18

    Sad that one who enjoyed a long career on the federal government dollar is so overtaken by his own sense of importance that he can’t honor the request of a veteran who risked his life for the country that gave him a paycheck. I pity my grandchildren growing up in a world where crybabies like this guy can set case law because they’re “offended”.

  • SAR

    Has anyone involved in this case stopped to consider the absurdity of removing a symbol of memorial from a historic site with a 74 year history simply because it rests on land that has only been nationalized for ten years?
    When are we going to realize the asinine absurdity of revising history? Does it matter whose history it is?

  • Candice Lapere

    Long ago are the days of not only our youth, but of being able to to feel both pride in God and in our Government. You may think that all forms of faith should be taken from some places, but it God made the world, are we so such smarter that we can judge, choose, and remove? Clearly, the government still chooses it’s parts of and in religion. I am going to assume, for a friendly discussion, that this is because they are busy, or trying to change the world or to even make it a little easier because of so many religions. But, that just doesn’t cut. You either want all parts of religion, or none. Stop then Swearing in Oaths on Bibles, be it for President or for courtrooms. Take out the part of GOD in “God Bless America”, or giving advise on the moral things (i.e., having a baby, embryonic fluid stem cell research, putting crosses at veteran or KIA soldiers. etc.) If you chose crosses or verses in songs or in the Pledge of allegance, have the morals to accept where they came from and use them. Otherwise it still feels like a form of “Hate Crime”.

  • M. P. Herrera

    Every piece and parcel of this Country exists today because of Veterans Sacrifices. To a Veteran the whole Country is Sacrad Land, so any symbol memorializing Veterans has a an earned right to be eracted on any piece of this land.



  • Patricia Dixon

    Perhaps we should not litter the last vestiges of virgin lands on Mother Earth with man made symbols.