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Stolen cross once at center of legal fight found

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
November 9, 2012 -- Updated 0022 GMT (0822 HKT)
The Mojave Cross in California was covered with plywood while a church-state issue was being resolved.
The Mojave Cross in California was covered with plywood while a church-state issue was being resolved.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mojave Cross was stolen from California desert in 2010
  • Suit over its display on public land went to Supreme Court
  • Cross recognized as memorial to veterans
  • Replica to be dedicated ahead of Veterans Day next week

(CNN) -- A stolen war memorial that was at the center of a prominent legal battle over the display of religious symbols on public land was found this week tied to a fence post near San Francisco.

Federal officials said on Thursday the Mojave Cross, removed by vandals from its lonely California desert perch two years ago, was located 500 miles away in Half Moon Bay.

"It was not easy to pick out identifying features to examine, but they are now confirming that it is in fact the Mojave Cross," Linda Slater, a spokeswoman with the Mojave National Preserve, said.

The Latin cross was first erected on national parkland in 1934 to honor war dead and has been rebuilt several times over the years. Easter services are held annually at the site.

A federal judge in 2001 ordered the six-foot metal cross covered with plywood in response to a lawsuit claiming the symbol violated federal law prohibiting government preference for a particular religion.

Frank Buono, a former Park Service employee, said in his suit the cross amounted to government endorsement of the Christian faith.

An appeals court agreed, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 it did not violate church-state separation and left it to lower courts to decide the circumstances for its display.

After months of subsequent litigation, the National Park Service conveyed a one-acre piece of federal land where the cross stood to the California Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The cross received congressional recognition a decade ago -- shortly after the initial lawsuits were filed -- and its now known as the White Cross World War I Memorial.

A replacement cross will be erected Sunday in a special rededication ceremony near the Mojave National Preserve.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Department was contacted this week by someone saying the stolen cross was tied to a fence post in Half Moon Bay. A note tied on it said authorities should be contacted.

Henry Sandoz, a local man who had built and erected the cross on Sunrise Rock in the park, was notified by rangers to help identify it. The rangers and Sandoz finally agreed that the cross found in San Mateo County was definitely the same one stolen in 2010, Slater said. The National Park Service plans to return it to him.

The cross itself was embedded in rock held in place by concrete. Whoever removed the original would have had to climb up the steep outcropping, maneuvering around rattlesnakes that hide in the crevices.

There have been no arrests or any indication who stole the original cross and how it would up in the San Francisco Bay area.

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