Desert cross

In 1994, the federal government declared 1.6 million acres of southeastern California desert -- barren land covered with Joshua trees, old mining trails and dry lakes -- to be the Mojave National Preserve. The National Park Service took over management from the Bureau of Land Management.

South of Primm, off the sparsely used road to Cima and Kelso, atop a rock outcropping the size of a two-story house, a 7-foot steel and concrete cross stands in the midst of that wind-swept expanse.

The cross -- or rather, one of its predecessors, since it's been re-erected many times -- was placed there in 1934 by the late J. Riley Bembry and a group of other World War I veterans, as a memorial to all war veterans. That was 60 years before the Park Service showed up.

Mr. Bembry, an old prospector who lived in a nearby mining shack, was unofficial custodian of the cross until the 1970s, when he became unable to continue and asked Henry Sandoz to take over the duty.

Mr. Sandoz did well enough protecting the cross -- where veterans and other area residents have long held Easter sunrise services -- from vandals and the elements. The federal government proved to be a somewhat tougher opponent.

At the time the preserve was formed, the Park Service employed a man named Frank Buono, an environmentalist who went on to become the area's assistant superintendent "for ecosystem management." After Mr. Buono retired in 1997, he complained about the cross, according to court documents. Its presence there offended him, he said, because it appeared to be a government endorsement of Christianity.

In October 1999, the ACLU threatened to sue the Park Service if the cross was not removed. Park officials undertook a study and decided the cross did not bear enough historical significance to qualify for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, so it should come down.

Area residents objected.

U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., added an amendment to a pending bill that made it illegal for the Park Service to remove the cross. The ACLU sued.

In July 2002, a federal judge in Riverside, Calif., ruled that the presence of the religious symbol on the land was unconstitutional. He ordered the Park Service to remove it.

Rep. Lewis responded by introducing language that would transfer the land the cross sits on into private hands -- a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post -- in exchange for land the Sandozes own.

Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the matter, refusing by a 5-4 vote to order the removal of the cross from its longtime home. Instead, the court directed a federal judge to again look at the congressional plan to transfer the patch of land beneath the cross to private ownership.

The holding was narrow -- Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia would have gone further. Nonetheless, the majority opinion, crafted by Anthony Kennedy, suggests a more permissive view of religious symbols on public land may prevail in future. "The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society," wrote Justice Kennedy, who usually is in the court's center on church-state issues.

Concerns about government endorsement of any one religion are not to be dismissed out of hand. No American should feel estranged or ostracized at any government-maintained site or function because of the callous assumption they won't mind being included in what amounts to a sectarian religious observance.

But Justice Kennedy got it about right, here.

Boston's Old North Church played a role in the history of the Revolution. Should it be stripped of its crosses and other religious trappings for fear of offending non-Christian tourists? Should the crosses marking the graveyards of both North and South at Gettysburg be covered over or removed? Do we really need to "sanitize" religion out of our history? Is it necessary to ban manger scenes and the playing of traditional Christmas music in December from fear of offending those who don't believe in the divinity of Jesus?

What the founders wished to avoid was the system then prevailing in Britain, where the king was also considered defender of the Anglican faith, and a religious test could limit those of other faiths -- or no faith -- from aspects of government service or public life.

Vigilance is appropriate. But we are nowhere near that juncture. If anything, it could be argued the religiously observant are probably under-represented in today's corridors of power. Nor need we rip up and dispose of pieces of our history in any pogrom against the last signs and trappings of our forefathers' religiosity.

The old cross does no harm.