The settlement has been arranged by the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union

Cross in desert park to be restored after land swap arranged

By  Catholic News Service
  • April 27, 2012

LOS ANGELES - A cross will be restored to a war memorial in a remote part of a national park in the California desert, according to a settlement agreement approved April 16 and announced April 24.

District Court Judge Robert Timlin signed off on an agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union to swap the half hectare parcel at Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve for land of equal value elsewhere in the preserve that was donated for the trade. The memorial site will be owned by the Veterans Home of California-Barstow, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 385E.

The agreement is the latest step in a long-running saga over the memorial, which was installed in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars on a rocky hillside in an isolated section of the 650,000-hectare preserve in San Bernardino County. Private groups and individuals had maintained and replaced a cross on the site over the years. The property is far from areas that are frequently travelled, but it has been used on occasion for Easter religious services.

A former National Park Service employee sued the government, objecting to the Christian symbol represented on federal land. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled it would be constitutional for the monument with a cross to stay on federal land, but sent the case back to lower courts to reconsider the proposed swap that would end government ownership of the property.

A statement posted on the preserve's web site said that after the exchange of ownership is completed — some time before the end of the year — the National Park Service would install a fence around the parcel with signs explaining it is private property. The agency would leave two entrance areas unfenced for access, the statement said. And the park service will install a plaque on Sunrise Rock "describing this memorial commemorating American war veterans."

Once the exchange is complete, a cross will be installed again on the land.

Meanwhile, an atheist group in Rhode Island is petitioning authorities in Woonsocket to remove a cross from a war memorial in a public park.

The Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Providence diocese, reported that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking for the cross to be removed from its place outside the Woonsocket Fire Department headquarters. The group also asked for two items to be removed from the fire department's web site — the Fireman's Prayer and a graphic of an angel consoling a grieving firefighter.

Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine said on a radio news program that he would not comply with the request.

Msgr. John Allard, chaplain of the town's fire department and pastor of St. Agatha and Precious Blood parishes, said the cross is a landmark that has been in place for almost a century.

"I think that there are many serious issues in the country," Allard said. "This is a distraction."

The monument was erected in 1921 in honour of William Jolicoeur, a member of the U.S. forces killed in France during the First World War. It was rededicated in 1952 by the Disabled American Veterans in honour of three brothers from the town who were killed in the Second World War.

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