It has been a decade since 68-year-old Wanda Sandoz last saw the 6-foot-tall pipe cross standing out in the sparse Mojave Desert Preserve in Cima, Calif., a memorial to the fallen soldiers of World War I. She remembers when she used to pass by the landmark four times a day when she was a school bus driver.
“I loved seeing it there, and I’m glad that I’d already retired when the box went on it,” she said, referring to the plywood container that covered the cross for eight years before the entire symbol was stolen in 2010.
But on Veteran’s Day, after 13 years of litigation, including a U.S. Supreme Court case, Wanda and her husband, Henry, 73, will finally be able fulfill the promise they made to a friend in 1984 and see the cross legally reinstated on Sunrise Rock. The federal government completed a lengthy land transfer last Friday, and Henry’s newly made pipe cross will be erected on Sunday.
“We are so, so happy that it’s going up and staying up without opposition, since the Veterans of Foreign Wars owns it now,” Wanda said. “We are so happy that it all came together and the veterans can have their memorial now.”
The original Mojave Desert cross was erected in 1934 and maintained by Riley Bembrey, a WWI veteran. When Bembrey fell ill in 1984, he asked the Sandozes to take care of the cross memorial, which by then had been missing for a couple of years. Henry re-erected the cross, and Wanda said they didn’t anticipate any trouble since it was a war memorial located in the middle of the desert, a four-hour drive from Los Angeles.
But Wanda remembers the day in 2000 when the park superintendent came to their house asking Henry to take down the cross after complaints about having a religious symbol erected on federal land. “[Henry] refused,” Wanda recalled. “I thank God he’s a stubborn guy, because otherwise it would have been over and done, and there’d be no World War I memorial.”
The Mojave Desert cross is the only World War I memorial in the nation designated by Congress.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), which owns the memorial, calling the cross unconstitutional because it violated the separation between church and state. A Riverside judge ruled that the cross couldn’t be displayed, and in 2002 the cross was covered, first with a bag, then with a plywood box.
As court proceedings continued through the years, the Sandozes continued to hold Easter services at the site, with Henry bringing his own smaller cross.
“All the years the cross was covered, I knew what was under that box and I kept thinking someday I’m going to look up and see the cross again,” Wanda said. For her, the cross was more than just a memorial, but a reminder of what Christ went through for her sins.
After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the ACLU, the veterans group figured that the only way to allow the cross to stand was to swap the federal land the cross was on with private land owned by the group. The 9th Circuit ruled the compromise faulty, and the case was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2010, high court ruled 5-4 that the land swap was permissible, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing, “The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.”
Days after the ruling, the cross was uprooted and stolen. Wanda said Henry immediately made another cross, but the federal government would not allow him to put it up—even with a box over it—until the land transfer had been completed.
Last Friday, the last details of the land transfer were finally worked out. Providentially, the missing cross was found in Northern California Monday, and the Sandozes confirmed it is the stolen cross. Still, they plan on erecting the new cross that Henry made on Sunday.
The cross will be unveiled at a ceremony that will include the Sandozes, members of the VFW, attorneys from Liberty Institute who provided representation in the case, and an honor guard.
“It is really a restoration of this veterans memorial that from here on forward will honor our veterans,” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel at Liberty Institute. “It’s [a feeling] of satisfaction to see it finally restored like it should be.”
Liberty Institute is currently working on a couple of other religious symbol cases, including the Mount Soledad Memorial in San Diego and the Maryland Peace Cross. Mateer said the Mojave Desert cross has set a strong precedent for land swap in these types of cases, but added that Justice Kennedy’s opinion already expressed that crosses can be displayed even without a land transfer.
And for Wanda Sandoz, she said she has been waiting for this moment for 13 years.
“I’m just proud this one is there,” she said. “I’m really proud we knew Riley—he was a wonderful man—I’m so glad he was our friend and he asked us to do this for him, and we were able to.”