LOS ANGELES - The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California succeeded this week in persuading the National Park Service to respect religious diversity and the separation of church and state on federal land in San Bernardino County, California and to remove a permanent cross over 8 feet tall from the Mojave National Preserve. The cross was plainly visible from the road that runs through the preserve, and the site was not open as a forum forany other form of religious expression, or other speech. The decision on the part of the National Park Service came after months of negotiation with the ACLU of Southern California, culminating in the threat of a lawsuit.
"Democracy and religion are both strengthened," said Michael Small, Chief Counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, "by the principle that the government should not champion one religious perspective over another, or, indeed, champion a religious perspective in general over none."
The cross was placed at the site by a group of private individuals, perhaps in the 1930's. The site is used as a gathering place for Easter and memorial services.
"The ACLU is fiercely committed to the rights of individuals to practice their religions, whether they do so on federal land, in their own back yard, or in a house of worship," said Small."Federal park land in the Grand Canyon, for instance, is used for services, but any religious symbols brought in for the service are removed when the service is done."
"Leaving a cross standing on federal land when a service is over," said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, "promotes Christian beliefs over others, which is not the role of the government. Federal park land is for all of us, whether we are Jewish,Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or none of the above."
The cross was brought to the attention of the ACLU by an ACLU member, a practicing Catholic and former Park Service employee, who wrote a letter to the ACLU of Southern California,which, in turn, wrote the National Park Service requesting the cross's removal. The Park Service initially resisted, but the ACLU refused to accept its justifications.
"The Park Service offered some dubious legal rationales for continuing to display a Christian symbol without opening the space as a general public forum for free speech," said Small. "One was that the federal government allows private cattle ranching on the land ? which would be the first time, to my knowledge, that a grazing lease would trump the U.S. Constitution. Another argument proposed by the service was that the cross had historic value ? as if an unconstitutional practice were less objectionable by virtue of having been practiced for decades."
The exchange of letters and phone calls continued from October 1999 to this month, and included a letter from a San Bernardino County politician who advocated continuing the unconstitutional practice.
According to the National Park Service, the cross will be removed within the next few months.
"The National Park Service's decision," said Small, "represents another ACLU victory for the principle that governments and religions shouldn't mix ? because when they do, they produce intolerance, alienation, and division."