(Photo: AP via Fox News)
(TheBlaze/AP) -- A war memorial cross that once stood on a rocky hilltop in a national park before being deemed unconstitutional and ordered removed has been resurrected on Veterans Day in the stunningly stark Mojave desert site, capping a landmark case for veterans fighting similar battles on public lands.
Henry Sandoz, who cared for the original 1930s cross as part of a promise to a dying World War I veteran, rededicated a new, 7-foot steel cross on the same hilltop. The site is now in private hands as part of a land swap with the National Park Service that ended the longstanding legal dispute, which had become entangled in the thorny issues of patriotism and religion.
"Judges and lawyers may have played their roles, but it was the veterans who earned this memorial, and it is for them it rises once more," said attorney Hiram Sasser of the Texas-based Liberty Institute, which represented veterans in the legal fight.
The settlement approved by a federal judge in April permitted the Park Service to turn over the acre of land known as Sunrise Rock to a Veteran of Foreign Wars post in Barstow and the Veterans Home of California-Barstow in exchange for five acres of donated property elsewhere in the 1.6 million acre preserve, about a four hour-drive east of Los Angeles.
The donated land was owned by Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, of Yucca Valley.
Sandoz has cared for the memorial as a promise to World War I veteran, Riley Bembry, who with other shell-shocked vets went to the desert to help heal and erected a wooden cross on Sunrise Rock in 1934. It was later replaced with a cross made of steel pipes.
This 2002 photo shows the Mojave Cross in the Mojave National Preserve. (Photo: Carlos Puma/AP)
Then Sunrise Rock became part of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994, putting the Christian symbol on public land.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in 2001 on behalf of a retired Park Service employee who argued the cross was unconstitutional because of the separation of church and state, and federal courts ordered it removed.
Congress stepped in and ordered the land swap in 2003, but the courts rejected the transfer. The issue eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in April 2010 refused to order the cross removed. The high court directed a federal judge to review the congressional land transfer plan.
But just weeks after the 2010 court decision, the cross - which had been covered up to comply with court injunctions - was stolen. In a startling twist of events, it turned up earlier this month near San Francisco with a note saying it needed to be returned to its rightful owners.
Regardless, veterans decided to start fresh and dedicated its replacement in an official ceremony Sunday.
The Park Service plans to fence the site, leaving entrances for visitors, and post signs noting it is private land. A plaque stating that the cross is a memorial for U.S. war veterans will be placed on the rock.
Fox News has more on the story, including video of the ceremony: