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Judge Orders Cross Removed from Mojave National Preserve


A federal judge has ruled that this cross atop Sunrise Rock in Mojave National Preserve must be removed. NPS Photo.

Brace yourself, I'm about to delve into one of those public conversation taboos. You know, you don't talk sex, politics, or religion in public.

But at times I find the debates spurred by symbols fascinating. And, of course, religious symbols seem to spur the most debates. The one I want to focus on involves Mojave National Preserve, where a federal judge has ruled that a cross can no longer stand atop Sunrise Rock.

The cross, a simple unadorned one, dates to 1934, when a wooden one was raised in honor of Americans who died during World War I. It later was replaced by a more enduring metal cross. As you look at it, it seems like a simple tribute. And yet in 2001 Frank Buono, a former National Park Service assistant superintendent at the preserve, filed a lawsuit, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, to have the cross removed.

Court papers from an earlier stage in the case noted that Buono was "deeply offended by the display of a Latin Cross on government-owned property," reads a story from the San Bernardino Sun.

Look at the picture. Are you "deeply offended" by the cross?

In her ruling, Judge M. Margaret McKeown held that the cross's location within the national preserve is an unconstitutional federal endorsement of Christianity.

This case has me wondering if there's a point when a symbol, religious or otherwise, becomes more a part of our country's history, of our social fabric, our culture, than it does a symbol of what it was initially viewed as? Beyond that, will this ruling lead the Park Service to remove any and all symbols or structures located within its properties that can be construed as religious? Should it prohibit any and all religious services?

Why did the judge in this case rule against the federal government, and yet back in 2000 a court dismissed a lawsuit claiming the federal government was endorsing a Native American religion by restricting access to Rainbow Bridge at Rainbow Bridge National Monument?

Of course, in the Rainbow Bridge case the court held that the couple that brought the lawsuit had suffered no personal injury and so had no standing. But what personal injury did Mr. Buono suffer in the Mojave Preserve matter?

Look elsewhere in the park system. The Park Service earlier this year designated a synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as a National Historic Landmark. Could someone argue that means the government endorses Judaism?

At Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming conflicts arise when Native Americans want to hold ceremonies at the tower and ask that climbing be restricted.

And then there's the Christian Ministry In the National Parks, which holds non-denominational services every Sunday during the summer in more than 35 national parks. By permitting these services, does the Park Service tacitly endorse religion in general?

As these cases reflect, there are no quick, clearcut answers to these questions. Judges seemingly have different standards when weighing the merits of the cases before them. Across the country, different segments of our population hold different values.

Where do you draw the line? How do you decide what should be allowed, and what should not? Should the parks be so aseptic of some segments of America's culture? How do you decide which symbols are offensive and which are not? If the cross in question were taken down and replaced by a monument, would that be OK?

Religion long has played a role in this country's evolution. The Founding Fathers were pious men, the explorers who opened up the West often talked of the majesty "He" created. Even John Muir referred to God in his writings about nature:

In God's wildness lies the hope of the world - the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.
- John of the Mountains, (1938) page 317.

I've long viewed myself as a secularist, and certainly don't want to see crosses and other symbols, religious or otherwise, sprouting on hills and mountaintops across the park system. And yet, are there times when you wonder whether we go too far in striving to be politically correct?

Frankly, perhaps it would have been best if the judge in the Mojave case simply ruled that the cross did not belong in the preserve, regardless of whether it had any religious connotations.


You raise some very good questions. The answers are neither simple nor easy. At the risk of sounding too self-promotional, I will direct you to my book “Blessed with Tourists: The Borderlands of Religion and Tourism in San Antonio,” which addresses the conundrum of religion in national parks at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. There the main attraction of the park are Spanish colonial mission churches that continue to serve as active places of worship for the Roman Catholic Church. Another site you could have mentioned is Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site where King’s home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, is a main attraction.

Certainly, religion has had a long and conflicted role in the nation’s history. Sorting out when the government’s involvement crosses from merely interpretation of that history to devotional participation in it is not easy. But the distinction is very important to many citizens across the religious and political spectrum for all sorts of reasons, far too many to go into now. This has been one of the courts’ most serious issues in the last century, and likely will not go away soon. But much of the public debate has been poorly informed and relies more on opinion than historical fact (for instance, the notion that the “Founding Fathers were pious men” is simply not true, at least not in the way that many people who make that claim think of piety).

I continue to be intrigued by the whole debate, especially as it pertains to the National Park Service. My current project is a book on the history of religion in Yellowstone National Park, which hopefully will shed more light on the issues and how American attitudes have changed over the last century-and-a-half.


You're right Kurt, you've definiately stepped in a pile with this article. First someone demands that the pledge of allegiance be removed from public schools. On the other hand, public school facilities and other public buildings are still allowed to be utilized for denominational religious services. Both positions are vehemently supported by the ACLU. Am I the only one to oppose the hypocritical nature of this whole mess? I was under the impression that we functioned as a person, one vote, majority rule. Not that I actually am naive enough to by into this concept. As I've pointed out on prior occasions, we're a capitalistic republic in reality. But as long as we continue to misrepresent ourselves to the world as the foremost democratic society in the world, how to we manage to allow for the thin-skinned minority to subjugate the wishes of those who are theoretically empowered within the framework of constitutional law? How do we allow for the rights of one self-serving group of nitwits whose only agenda is based solely around total removal of diety from our public consciousness? By all rights, shouldn't our currency also be modified to eliminate a certain phrase involving the Almighty? Oops, sorry, I guess I shouldn't have capitalized there, I'll probably be getting contacted by those ACLU morons next, since this is afterall, a PUBLIC forum.......

As you are all aware, the majority of our public lands contain ceratin sites of religious significance to native peoples in this land, yet their's are a minority voice that is conveniently and regularly overlooked. What makes the concerns of godless invaders more politically concerning than the ancient stores of artifacts, sites of centuries old tribal customs and ceremonial import of those who actually know these lands far more intimately than do we? As you mention, this one miserable legal group cries and a symbol is removed, probably with an apology that is was allowed to be erected in the first place. The REAL natives try to reclaim ancestral holy places, or in other cases reclaim their RIGHTS to at the very least utilized these places for their periodic ceremonial purposes, and in the legal forum they are brushed aside like a gnat, without apology or fanfare. How convenient to ignore those with a true legal basis to justify their claims, and bend to the breaking point for a group with MONEY to contribute (or withhold) during election campaigns. I'm of the opinion that the hypocracy that is the American Civil Liberties Union, who will also defend non-citizens of this country as if they were naturalized, tax-paying, contributing and productive members of our society, feels that true natives are neither American, Civil, or entitled to the same Liberty (and justice for ALL!!) that is accorded to illegal members of this community. Or am I missing something, again?

Don't you - Anonymous - answer your first question with your second question? It seems common sense that you don't have freedom of religion if you don't protect minority practice of religion. Whether this cross is or isn't, I have no idea.

Back at the beginning of my time in Yellowstone, I went there with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks; I have very mixed up feelings about the experience. On the one hand, I felt it was a wonderful way to express religious faith; there was no better and thought-provoking setting. On the other hand, the uneasy way that the parks worked with and didn't work with religious groups was a constant reminder of just how many faiths (as well as atheists) have an interest in Yellowstone. It could feel stifling at times. Ultimately, I think people are better off not applying for government permits, not trying to get government sanction for religious expression, and simply doing it, and as part of that religious expression, facilitating that for the use of others. As it stands now, it's like a competition, and the government stands as arbiter in protecting the ability for under-represented groups to worship freely.

As usual, the government is arbitrating over forces and issues much bigger than itself. As the arrangement currently stands, I think they have no choice but to take the sort of approach they do -- issuing permits, trying not to endorse a particular religion. But, as people with beliefs, whatever one's beliefs happen to be, it's up to us to facilitate the expression of people of different faiths. Instead of trying to protect and enlarge our piece of the pie, one would hope that people are secure enough in their religious faith that they will show the love and sacrifice required so that those voices can have expression. If it means removing the symbols of faith to do so, we should do so merrily. That seems to me to be the mission of love upon which faith is generally centered.

I don't know if that's educated or common sense; whether the call to turn the other cheek is educated or common sense. I do think that religious belief is merely the outward expression of one's philosophical ideology, and of course, ideologies conflict. In my case, I believe in standing up for those most victimized by our actions. That happens, in our society, to be those who don't happen to be Christians; it seems the Christian thing to do (at least the right thing to do) is to do what we can to make the space in parks as comfortable as possible for them to express their faith. If they in turn become the oppressor, we can cross that bridge when we get there. At present, it's not the current reality, which is exactly why freedom of religion and protection of minority points of view belong together - and that's common sense.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World


how long does something need to stand in a national park before it becomes part of the tapestry of the story of a park itself and protected by law? i seem to remember something about trash (not referring to the cross, have no interest in the can of worms here) becoming historical after a certain period of time.

I wonder what the reaction would be if the religious symbol being removed was a "Native American" totem of some sort?

It's appropriate if the reaction is different (for the totem pole than for the cross) for many of the same reasons I give above. And, not just those, but more besides ... though all of them related.

As it stands, in the parks I know something about (Yellowstone and Grand Teton), tribes have not been able to pursue activities related to their faith historically because the National Park Service has so often denied their connection to the history of the park. Even today, there's a scholar trying to claim that Sheepeaters didn't even really exist. I think the issue with religion as it relates to the tribes isn't always so "protect 'the minority'" as it is caricaturized. And, actually, from my point of view, as someone who calls himself a Christian, I think that's too bad! I'd sooner part with a cross than with a totem pole given the historical and social context of how those symbols have ended up in and are used across this country and in the parks.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

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