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The vandals win

Too often, bureaucracy and regulation punish the innocent and reward the guilty. Lawbreakers are allowed to trample those who follow the law — and the law itself.

Until a few weeks ago, a 7-foot cross once stood in the Mojave Desert Preserve as a memorial to troops killed in World War I. Veterans of Foreign Wars first built the cross in 1934, long before the land became part of a federal park. The old cross was replaced in the 1990s with a replica.

A former Park Service employee sued, saying it was unconstitutional for the Christian symbol to stand on federal land. Congress transferred the cross site to private ownership, but that didn’t keep the case from reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Last month, justices said the cross did not need to be removed while a lower court reconsidered that transfer.

Thieves decided to overrule the court by stealing the cross. So at some point between sundown Wednesday and sunrise Thursday, a new cross appeared, bolted securely at the site.

And the Park Service, in a gesture of solidarity with the criminals, tore that one down, too.

A Park Service spokeswoman said the cross clearly wasn’t the one stolen last month — it was new, and as such, it had to be removed. “Technically, it’s illegal,” Linda Slater said. “The park service has regulations about people putting up memorials. You can’t just go to a park and put a memorial to a family member.”

This was no “memorial to a family member.” It was an attempt at righting a wrong, at returning to the landscape a monument that had been there for generations. For heaven’s sake, the cross that was stolen was a replica, too.

This legal dispute is about the cross as a symbol, not one specific piece of painted steel. The Park Service has all but guaranteed another years-long legal fight that taxpayers will be billed for. It has ensured that the wishes of lawbreakers will be honored — and that our war dead won’t.

Let a replacement cross stand. And when the vandals steal that one, let it be replaced again. And again, if necessary, until the case is decided by the courts, once and for all.

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