Washington, DC — A Congressionally mandated land exchange to place an eight-foot-tall cross, planted atop a 30-foot-high rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve in California, in private hands is invalid, according to a federal court decision released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, the five-year legal fight to remove the cross from federal land will succeed, unless the Bush Administration once again seeks appellate court review.
In a ruling issued on April 5, 2005, Judge Robert J. Timlin of U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held that a one-acre land exchange enacted by Congress in 2003 to place the cross in private hands and thus shield it from previous court orders for removal was “a sham” and a transparent “attempt by the government to evade the permanent injunction enjoining the display of the Latin cross” on federal land. Local Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) had inserted the unusual land exchange in the massive FY 04 Defense Appropriations Act. Lewis is now the chair of the full House Appropriations Committee.
PEER Board member Frank Buono, the former assistant superintendent at Mojave National Preserve, is the lead plaintiff in the case (Buono v. Norton) brought by the ACLU of Southern California. Judge Timlin permanently enjoined the Secretary of the Interior and all National Park Service officials from implementing the exchange and further directed these officials to carry out the court’s July 24, 2002 order that the cross be removed.
“This case is about whether government officials may place their religious preferences above the law,” stated Buono, who led a coalition including the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America and conservation groups in opposing Lewis’ land exchange rider. “In matters of religion, federal officials’ oaths to uphold the Constitution seem to take a holiday.”
The fight at Mojave is only the latest development in a wide-ranging campaign to end government sponsorship of religious objects on public lands:
- Grand Canyon National Park restored bronze plaques bearing verses from the Psalms at park overlooks. In ordering the plaques return, NPS Deputy Director overruled the park superintendent and apologized on official stationery to the plaques’ sponsors, the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary;
- Last year, in a similar maneuver to the Mojave exchange, Congress authorized the establishment of a new national park system unit in order to save the Mount Soledad Cross in San Diego from court-ordered removal; and
- The Park Service is stalling a review of its decision to allow sale of a creationist book contending that Noah’s Flood created the Grand Canyon some 6,000 years ago, despite agency policy that it should sponsor only books that promote public education about science.
“At Mojave and other national parks, Federal dollars and resources are being illegally used to promote Christianity,” Buono added. “If the Park Service and the Justice Department decide to accept and not appeal this latest Mojave ruling, it may be a sign that the message is sinking in that the Constitution also applies to them.”