LOS ANGELES - The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit in federal court today seeking to compel National Park Service officials to remove a large cross installed in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County.
""The federal government should not offer public land - owned collectively by people of every faith and of no faith - as a site for the advertisement and promotion of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Pope John Paul II, or any other particular religious figure,"" said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California and First Amendment specialist.
The cross, which is clearly visible from a road running through the national park was brought to the ACLU's attention by a member of the organizations.
The ACLU negotiated for many months with Park Service officials and believed the matter to be closed after the organization received a letter in October of last year from the National Park Service announcing their decision to remove it.
In response to news articles about the cross's removal, on December 15 of last year Congress passed a law specifying that no federal funds ""may be used by the Secretary of the Interior to remove the five-foot-tall white cross located within the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve in southern California.""
"If any person was allowed to place a permanent, free-standing expression of his or her religious or political viewpoint at this site, we would have no objection,"" said Eliasberg, ""but that is not the case here. No other group is allowed to erect a religious symbol. This creates a situation in which the federal government favors Christian expression over any other."
""The courts have consistently held,"" he noted, ""that a permanent religious fixture on federal land is a violation of the U.S. Constitution. An Act of Congress doesn't change that. The cross must come down, and no amount of political maneuvering or grandstanding will prevent that."
Eliasberg believes the case presents a crucial first test to the U.S. Department of Justice under new Attorney General John Ashcroft, who promised during his confirmation hearings that he would uphold the Constitution.
Eliasberg sent a letter to the Department of Justice today urging officials to act responsibly, abide by the law, and reach a quick settlement rather than attempt to defend a clearly unconstitutional practice.
"This case will put to the test Attorney General Ashcroft's commitment to upholding the principles of our Constitution," said Eliasberg. "This will be a clear indicator of what we can expect from this Department of Justice in upholding the First Amendment guarantees that keep us free."
Much of the controversy surrounding the cross concerned its status as a site where Christian veterans gather to remember war dead in special services.
But not all veterans are in agreement about the cross. Speaking at an ACLU news conference, Morris Radin, an 82-year old Jewish veteran of World War II, described his experience of fighting for the principles he believes this country was founded on.
"My father, Abe, was just eighteen when he came to America and became an American citizen," said Radin. "As an Orthodox Jew, he knew firsthand what happens when people are not free to practice their beliefs. He and my mother Sophie both left Russia to escape the pogroms. They never told me whether they had witnessed any of the atrocities born of that nation's inability to guarantee their freedom of religion. They drew a curtain on that period of their lives and faced a new life in a different place."
"They came to America without knowing the language," said Radin, "but knowing the larger language of America's promise. America is big enough for everyone to practice his or her own faith and where no one faith is privileged over any other or over none at all. Abe and Sophie Radin loved this country as passionately and profoundly as any citizen."
"The country they loved is the country I fought for and love as well," said Radin, "a country founded on principle, on freedom of conscience and religion, a country where the government isn't Christian or Jewish or Muslim, but can welcome all of these and more on a free and equal basis. That is the country I defend in supporting this legal action."