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WWI memorial cross stolen from Mojave National Preserve

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 11, 2010

WASHINGTON — Vandals toppled and removed the 8-foot-high cross at Mojave National Preserve in California less than two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled the controversial memorial could remain on federal property.

The cross, which has stood in various forms for the last 76 years as a memorial to World War I soldiers, was stolen late Sunday night or early Monday morning, according to officials from the Liberty Institute, a conservative advocacy group that deals with church-state issues. In a statement Kelly Shackelford, the group’s president, called the actions “disgusting.”

Vandals cut through a series of metal bolts to remove the cross — still covered by a wooden box — from its concrete foundation.

The cross had been covered with plywood for 10 years as the legal fight surrounding the memorial wound through the courts. Officials from the Liberty Institute argued in favor of allowing the memorial to stand, saying that censoring the cross violated veterans’ freedom of speech and religion.

On April 28, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the memorial did not warrant removal as an overtly religious symbol, and did not represent government endorsement of a specific religion.

In his opinion of support, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “the Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society” and compared the cross to the those that serve as headstones for troops killed in many American wars.

Groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion immediately praised the decision, but additional appeals kept the cross covered in plywood.

On Tuesday, they reacted angrily to the news that the cross was stolen.

“This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families,” said VFW national commander Thomas Tradewell Sr. “To think anyone can rationalize the desecration of a war memorial is sickening.”

American Legion National Commander Clarence Hill called the vandalism “disturbing.”

“This was never about one cross. It is about the right to honor our nation’s veterans in a manner in which the overwhelming majority supports,” he said in a statement. “The American Legion strongly believes the public has a right to protect its memorials.”

Tradewell vowed the memorial will be rebuilt and “the vandals will be caught and prosecuted in federal court, since the crime occurred on government property.” A reward is being offered by the Liberty Institute for information related to the incident.

National Park Service officials as of Tuesday morning said they were not aware of the vandalism.