ACLU Persuades National Park Service to Remove Christian Cross from Mojave Preserve Site

October 31, 2000 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES – The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California succeeded this week in persuading the National Park Service to respect religious diversity and the First Amendment by removing a Christian cross from the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County.

“The National Park Service’s decision,” said Michael Small, Chief Counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, “represents another ACLU victory for the principle that governments and religions shouldn’t mix – because when they do, they produce intolerance, alienation, and division.”

The site upon which the cross stood was frequently used as a gathering place for Easter and memorial services. But the site was not open as a venue for any other form of religious expression, or other speech, the ACLU said.

The decision on the part of the National Park Service came after months of negotiation with the ACLU of Southern California, culminating in the threat of a lawsuit.

The cross was initially brought to the attention of the ACLU by a member, a practicing Catholic and former Park Service employee, who wrote a letter to the ACLU of Southern California, which, in turn, wrote the National Park Service requesting the cross’s removal. The Park Service initially resisted, but the ACLU refused to accept its justifications.

“The Park Service offered some dubious legal rationales for continuing to display a Christian symbol without opening the space as a general public forum for free speech,” said Small. “One was that the federal government allows private cattle ranching on the land – which would be the first time, to my knowledge, that a grazing lease would trump the U.S. Constitution.”

An exchange of letters and phone calls between the Parks Service and the ACLU continued from October 1999 to this month, and included a letter from a San Bernardino County politician who advocated continuing the unconstitutional practice.

The ACLU is committed to the rights of individuals to practice their religions, whether they do so on federal land, in their own back yard, or in a house of worship. Federal park land in the Grand Canyon, for instance, is used for services, but any religious symbols brought in for the service are removed when the service is done.

“Leaving a cross standing on federal land when a service is over,” said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, “promotes Christian beliefs over others, which is not the role of the government. Federal park land is for all of us, whether we are Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or none of the above.”

According to the National Park Service, the cross will be removed within the next few months.

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