ACLU opposition, vandals threaten cross in Mojave Desert

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. -- Henry Sandoz, a retired miner with a thick white mustache and scuffed cowboy boots, climbed a rock as big as a two-story house in the desert near the California-Nevada border.

He pointed to rusty scuff marks on a steel cross set in concrete and bolted atop the rock.

"They tried cutting it down," the 63-year-old said from what locals have dubbed Sunrise Rock, about 10 miles south of Interstate 15.

"Really," said his wife, Wanda, 59, standing below, eating cheese and crackers.

"Yup," said Henry Sandoz, flashing a wry smile and shaking his head. "Here, it looks like they even wrapped a chain around it. Well, they sure tried hard."

Foes of the cross -- first vandals, and then the American Civil Liberties Union -- have for years been trying to remove the two welded pieces of steel from Sunrise Rock.

A judge recently ordered the cross removed, after the ACLU sued the federal government, contending that because the cross is on federal land, it violates the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.

But the fight isn't over. The area's congressman has become involved, and a land trade could save the 6-foot-tall symbol.

Long before the courts or the politicians got involved, the cross was protected by J. Riley Bembry, a grizzled old prospector and World War I veteran.

"We really loved him," said Wanda, a retired school bus driver.

"Yeah," said her husband. "He was like a second father to me."

In 1934, Bembry and a group of war veterans fashioned a cross out of steel pipe and set it high above the desert floor. According to a plaque they placed nearby, they intended it as a memorial to war veterans.

Over the years, the veterans would gather at the rock for Easter Sunday sunrise services. The cross became more than a war memorial, it became a religious gathering place.

From time to time, vandals or the elements would knock the cross down. Eventually, the plaque disappeared. But every time the cross went down, Bembry or another veteran would put it back up. Sometimes he'd make a new one from pipe, other times he simply nailed two boards together.

The prospector lived nearby in a shack he'd built in the 1920s out of wooden planks and corrugated aluminum. To this day, the shack sits alone in the desert near one of his mining claims.

Along the way, Bembry, who was born in 1899, befriended the Sandozes, who met him while picnicking. The Sandozes have lived in the area for more than 40 years.

As Bembry got older, caring for the cross became more difficult. When he was in his 70s, it became more than he could handle.

"'I sure would like to see somebody put that cross back up there and maintain it,"' Henry Sandoz recalls Bembry saying to him once when the cross was missing.

Sandoz knew a hint when he heard one. He thought long and hard and said yes, he'd look after it.

Sandoz never served in the military. Taking care of the cross, he said, was "partly my contribution to my country. And to my friend, Riley Bembry. I knew he couldn't do it any more."

Bembry died in 1984, and his friends buried him in a tiny cemetery far off the beaten path in the Mojave. His grave, one of just five in the cemetery, is next to that of a prospector who died in 1909.

For more than two decades, the Sandozes have been the caretakers of the cross.

Just like Bembry, Sandoz often found himself replacing the cross. A few years back, he finally welded two 4-inch steel pipes together, bolted the cross to the top of Sunrise Rock and filled the hollow pipes with concrete.

It seemed to hold well, he said. Indeed, the cross is so solidly attached to the rock today that someone without serious power tools probably would have a hard time removing it.

The Sandozes and a few dozen mountain residents continued to hold Easter services at the cross, they said.

In 1994, 60 years after the cross was erected, the federal government declared the surrounding 1.6 million-acre area covered with Joshua trees, old mining trails and dry lakes a national preserve. The National Park Service took over managing the land from the Bureau of Land Management.

At the time, the Park Service employed Frank Buono, an environmentalist who went on to become the area's assistant superintendent for ecosystem management.

After Buono retired in 1997, he complained about the cross, according to court documents. He said its presence offended him because it appeared to be a government endorsement of Christianity.

The Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union got word and argued the cross violated the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

In October 1999, the ACLU threatened to sue the Park Service if the cross was not removed. Park officials undertook a study and decided that the cross did not have enough historical significance to qualify for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, and so it should come down.

Area residents put up a fight.

"We didn't just tell them no. We said, 'Hell no,"' Sandoz said. "I put it up there to stay and I'm not taking it down."

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., heard about the cross and the ACLU's objection.

In 2001, Lewis slipped an amendment into a bill that made it illegal for the Park Service to remove the cross.

The ACLU sued.

In July, a federal judge in Riverside, Calif., ruled that the presence of the religious symbol on the land was unconstitutional. He ordered the Park Service to remove it, though he did not specify when.

The Sandozes were devastated, but Lewis was not done maneuvering.

He plans to introduce language into a bill in the upcoming session of Congress to transfer the land that the cross sits on into private hands, a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, in exchange for land that the Sandozes own.

The land transfer idea has the Sandozes excited.

But they said even if it fails, the courts will not stop them or their neighbors from gathering at the site of the Mojave cross.

"If the cross did have to come down -- and in my heart I don't believe that it will -- we would still have Easter sunrise services out there," Wanda Sandoz said. "We would carry a cross out there with us if we had to."


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