House of Representatives Passes Lewis Resolution Condemning Theft of Mojave Cross
The House of Representatives Tuesday voted unanimously to support a resolution by Congressman Jerry Lewis condemning the theft of the Mojave Cross veterans' memorial, and urging federal officials to cooperate fully with veterans groups in returning the memorial to its rightful location.
"Supporting our veterans is one of the top priorities for members of Congress, and I am grateful that my colleagues took this important measure up before we went out of session," said Lewis, who introduced the resolution in May. "Congress has repeatedly voted overwhelmingly to protect the Mojave Cross as a memorial to veterans and those who have died to defend our nation, and it is vital that we continue that support.
The Mojave Cross was erected on Sunset Rock in the East Mojave more than 75 years ago by veterans in honor of those who gave their lives in defense of the nation and freedom, Lewis told his colleagues. It was cut down and stolen by vandals in May after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision declaring the memorial unconstitutional.
Lewis joined with Congressman Buck McKeon and Ken Calvert in condemning the theft, and introduced the resolution calling on the Interior Department and Justice Department to work closely with veterans' groups to ensure it was returned. The resolution was cosponsored by 22 other members, and was set for a floor vote as part of the end-of-session wrap-up.
Although veterans' groups have offered to replace the stolen memorial, the National Park Service has refused because of the on-going court case surrounding the Mojave Cross.
Ruling on a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, lower courts have determined that the Mojave Cross was an unconstitutional display of a religious symbol on government land.
In response to urgent requests from constituents and veteran's groups, Congressman Lewis in 2003 authored legislation that exchanged land on which the cross stands for privately-held acreage within the Mojave National Preserve. He had also authored legislation in 2001 to declare the cross a national memorial -- the only such memorial dedicated to the war dead of WWI.
The land transfer was also ruled invalid by federal courts. But the U.S. Supreme Court in April overturned that decision, saying the lower courts had not given adequate consideration to whether Congress's action in exchanging the land resolved the constitutional question.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in writing the Supreme Court decision, said the law granting the land exchange "embodied a legislative judgment that this dispute is best resolved through a framework and policy of accommodation. The statute should not have been dismissed as an evasion, for it brought about a change of law and a congressional statement of policy applicable to the case."
The cross was not established by the government, but rather by veterans to honor veterans of all wars, Lewis told his colleagues Tuesday. It has never been maintained by the government, and the land on which it sits was transferred by law to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in exchange for other land within the Mojave National Preserve.
Lewis has urged the Justice Department and Interior Department to complete the land transfer, which would allow the veterans' groups to replace the cross on private land.
"Legislation was approved by Congress and signed into law that would resolve this problem by removing the land from government ownership, and it is time to complete this process that has gone on for more than a decade now," Lewis said. "It is time to give our veterans groups the ability to replace this important memorial to those who gave their lives to defend our nation and freedoms."