The cross in the desert Thirteen-year saga

Posted on October 24, 2012

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October 22, 2012
http://cal-catholic
The following comes from an October 21 story in the Los Angeles Times.

See the update on the similar case in La Jolla CA and the recent Washington Post story on another threatened cross in Maryland.

…Mary Martin, superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, read her
mail in the morning, and on a spring day in 1999 she picked up a
letter signed by Sherpa San Harold Horpa. It sounded like a joke.

Horpa began by describing “a tasteful cross that stands on a small
hill.” The hill, known as Sunrise Rock, was in the preserve off Cima
Road, six miles south of Interstate 15.

Horpa had a special request: He wanted to place another religious
symbol on the site.

“I proposed to install a stupa equal in size, color, material and
taste to the cross,” he wrote.

Martin had to look up what a stupa was — a Buddhist shrine — and that
afternoon she composed her reply: “Any attempt to erect a stupa will
be in violation of federal law and subject you to citation and or
arrest.”

Martin was aware of that cross, which was erected in 1934, and she
suspected that one day she would have to remove it. But at this point
it was a low priority. The preserve was in its fifth year, and she and
her colleagues were busy buying property from ranchers, preserving the
habitat of the desert tortoise, and converting the old Union Pacific
station in Kelso into a visitor center….

Herman Hoops’ friend Frank Buono had been visiting him that spring at his home
in Jensen, Utah, just outside Dinosaur National Monument. Buono had
first brought up the cross in a conversation about the Mojave National
Preserve. Both men — retired Park Service employees with more than 20
years each — felt that a religious symbol on federal land was wrong.

With the sun setting on the river canyon of Dinosaur, Hoops sat down
at his computer, and they began composing. They made the argument for
the stupa, “complete with prayer wheels and flags,” and Hoops came up
with the pseudonym [Sherpa Horpa].

When he opened Martin’s reply, Hoops wanted to continue with the
pretense, but Buono told his friend to hold off. He had contacted the
American Civil Liberties Union, which had agreed to investigate the
cross to see if there might be a case….

Martin received the first letter from the ACLU in October 1999, urging
that the cross be removed because it was a violation of the First
Amendment. Ten months later a second letter arrived, this time setting
a deadline of 60 days.

By then Martin had researched the cross and had learned about the
promise that Henry and Wanda Sandoz made to a sick friend who had
maintained it over the years. The Sandozes had agreed they would be
its caretaker.

When their friend died in 1984, the cross had been missing for a
couple of years, and Henry built a new one. This cross was vandalized,
and he finally decided to replace it.

In violation of park regulations, he and Wanda gathered with family
and friends at Sunrise Rock on Palm Sunday in 1998. They bolted a
cross, made of 5-inch-diameter pipe, to the granite and filled it with
concrete. Afterward, they crowded beneath it barbecuing hot dogs.

Because the cross — raised to commemorate veterans of World War I —
wasn’t the original, Martin felt she had to take it down. But she
didn’t want to make a decision that would be unpopular among Mojave
residents who resented the changes that the Park Service had brought
to their lives.

Martin needed an ally and found one in Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).
Throughout 2000, Lewis had stayed apprised of the ACLU’s complaint.
The group’s accusation, he wrote, was “ridiculous,” and as a member of
the House Appropriations Committee, he would take legislative action,
if necessary, to save the cross.

By late fall, Martin had exhausted her options, which included a
personal appeal to the Sandozes to take the cross down. She drafted a
letter for the Park Service’s regional director to send to the
congressman. “Absent legislative intervention,” it read, Martin would
have no choice but to remove the cross.

Two weeks later the congressional budget passed with language
introduced by Lewis preventing the use of federal funds to remove the
cross. Three months later, the ACLU filed its lawsuit; Buono was a
plaintiff.

When a judge in Riverside ruled that the cross couldn’t be displayed,
it was wrapped in a tarp that was fastened, Houdini-style, at the base
by chain and a padlock. After being shredded by vandals, the tarp was
replaced by a plywood box.

“It looked like a big Popsicle,” said Dennis Schramm, who replaced
Martin as superintendent of the preserve in 2005.

Artists painted landscapes that prominently featured the cross. Videos
were shot in its shadow. A website was created, and the Sandozes were
cast as crusaders.

In the end, the ACLU won. A federal district judge in Riverside ruled
that the presence of the cross on federal land conveyed an endorsement
of religion. His opinion was upheld by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of
Appeals.

The only way the cross could remain was if Sunrise Rock were privately
owned. A compromise was arranged: a land swap between the Sandozes and
the Park Service. The California office of the Veterans of Foreign
Wars would take ownership of the property around the cross.

But a district court ruled against the compromise. The U.S. Supreme
Court eventually took the case and determined that the ruling was
flawed. The district court reconsidered and in April approved the
transfer. By then the ACLU and Buono had stopped their fight.

Not long after the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010, the cross was
stolen and was never recovered….

Last July, the Sandozes — Henry, 73, and Wanda, 68 — and a few
supporters met Park Service officials at Sunrise Rock to work out the
final arrangements.

With temperatures close to 120 degrees, they walked the perimeter of
the property. The Park Service has allocated $28,121 to pay for a
cable to section off the property, signs to designate it as private
property and a plaque to identify the cross as a war memorial.

The Park Service hopes to hand the one-acre parcel over to the VFW by
the first week in November, and the Sandozes plan to commemorate the
site by Veterans Day.

Henry Sandoz has a new cross ready. Partly covered by plywood and an
old washtub, it lies on the concrete floor of a barn — three pieces of
pipe, cut by an acetylene torch, welded together and, as yet,
unpainted.

For entire story, click here.

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