LOS ANGELES - The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed suit in federal court today against officials in charge of the National Park Service (NPS) to compel them to remove a large permanent cross from the Mojave National Preserve. The cross is located in San Bernardino County, California and is clearly visible from a road running through the park. An ACLU member brought the cross to the organization's attention. The ACLU/SC negotiated for many months with NPS officials and believed that the matter was closed after the organization received a letter in October of last year from National Park Service officials announcing their decision to remove it. On December 15, 2000, however, Congress passed HR 4577, which precludes the use of federal funds to remove the cross. The cross remains in place, a clear violation of the First Amendment's non-establishment of religion clause.
"Contrary to what some believe," said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California and First Amendment specialist, "it is not the role of the federal government to advance Christianity or any other sectarian belief. Americans are perfectly competent to make such decisions for themselves without government interference."
"The federal government," said Eliasberg, "should not offer public land - owned collectively by people of every faith and of no faith - as a site for the advertisement and promotion of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Pope John Paul II, or any other particular religious figure."
"If anyone was allowed to place a permanent, free-standing expression of his or her religious or political viewpoint at this site," said Eliasberg, "we would have no objection, but that is not the case. No other group is allowed to do that. This creates a situation in which the federal government favors Christian expression over any other."
In response to articles about the cross's removal, Congress acted to prevent the removal and on December 15, 2000 passed a rider to HR 4457 adding the following language:
"None of the funds in this or any other Act may be used by the Secretary of the Interior to remove the five-foot-tall white cross located within the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve in southern California first erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars along Cima Road approximately 11 miles south of Interstate 15."
Eliasberg noted that HR 4457 results in a clear violation of the First Amendment and pointed to established law in the area.
"The courts have consistently held," said Eliasberg, "that a permanent religious fixture on federal land is a violation of the U.S. Constitution. An Act of Congress doesn't change that. This cross must come down, and no amount of political maneuvering or grandstanding will prevent that."
Eliasberg believes the case presents a crucial first test to the U.S. Department of Justice under new Attorney General John Ashcroft, who promised during his confirmation hearings that he would uphold the Constitution. Eliasberg drafted and sent a letter to the Department of Justice today to urge the Department to act responsibly, abide by the law, and reach a quick settlement rather than attempt to defend a clearly unconstitutional practice.
"This case will put to the test Attorney General Ashcroft's commitment to upholding the principles of our Constitution," said Eliasberg. "This will be a clear indicator of what we can expect from this Department of Justice in upholding the First Amendment guarantees that keep us free."
Much of the controversy surrounding the cross concerned its status as a site where Christian veterans gather to remember war dead in special services. But not all veterans are in agreement about the cross. Morris Radin, an 82-year old Jewish veteran of World War II, spoke at the press conference to describe his experience of fighting for the principles he believes this country was founded on.
"My father, Abe, was just eighteen when he came to America and became an American citizen," said Radin. "As an Orthodox Jew, he knew firsthand what happens when people are not free to practice their beliefs. He and my mother Sophie both left Russia to escape the pogroms. They never told me whether they had witnessed any of the atrocities born of that nation's inability to guarantee their freedom of religion. They drew a curtain on that period of their lives and faced a new life in a different place."
"They came to America without knowing the language," said Radin, "but knowing the larger language of America's promise. America is big enough for everyone to practice his or her own faith and where no one faith is privileged over any other or over none at all. Abe and Sophie Radin loved this country as passionately and profoundly as any citizen."
"The country they loved is the country I fought for and love as well," said Radin, "a country founded on principle, on freedom of conscience and religion, a country where the government isn't Christian or Jewish or Muslim, but can welcome all of these and more on a free and equal basis. That is the country I defend in supporting this legal action."