In the coming weeks, the United States Supreme Court will decide the fate of a five-foot Latin cross that has been in the Mojave National Preserve for nearly 75 years.
The arguments heard last week were the culmination of 10 years of litigation — a courtroom drama pitting Frank Buono, a former National Park Service employee, against the Department of the Interior and the full weight of the federal government.
Although the Mojave Cross is intended to honor all of those who died in battle, Buono contends that he found the use of the symbol offensive when intended as a war memorial. And, more importantly from the court’s point of view, he believes that erecting it on federal land was a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Most sensible Americans would agree with Buono on several points. First, the government should not be in the business of sponsoring overtly religious architecture; second, the National Park Service should not be required to use its limited resources to maintain such architecture; and finally, that the sacrifices of all American soldiers in time of war, regardless of religion, should be honored equally.
If these were the only principles at stake, a just court would have no choice but to find in favor of Buono. Yet the realities of the cross’s construction and the nature of the lawsuit require more nuanced judicial insight.
The Mojave Cross was erected not by the government, but by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a private organization, and is dedicated not only to the Christian dead, and not only to the American dead, but to “the dead of all wars.” The cross is not a grandiose federal endorsement of Christianity, but, rather, a simple steel construction barely as tall as a man, created by a local artist, funded by veterans organizations and maintained by local volunteers. The only argument against it is its location on federal land, which is a valid concern and one that Congress attempted to address through a land exchange with the VFW in 2003; the exchange, however, was blocked by a court injunction at the request of Buono.
Buono’s reservations about crosses on federal land are not without substance, but he lost his moral high ground by using the court to block the transfer of land to veterans associations. Through this action he ceased to be a champion of the secular state, becoming instead a man who prefers the destruction of a monument in honor of America’s fallen to the simple exchange of one acre of Mojave desert.
In the final analysis, it must be remembered, above all, that this small cross in the California desert was erected by the survivors of the trenches of the Western Front. It is but a small gesture in remembrance of those whose final resting place had been the mud of Château-Thierry and Meuse-Argonne. A century separates us from those brave young men and their memory cannot help but fade with time, yet, through this homemade cross on a hill in the desert they are remembered still. Do not let politics rob our soldiers of that.
Kevin Symcox is a senior in Silliman College.