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Supreme Court: Mojave cross can stay

In a divided plurality ruling issued this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed a cross erected on the Mojave National Preserve as a memorial to war veterans to stay put.

The cross has been the subject of much controversy and litigation. After Establishment Clause challenges to the cross’s placement on federal land resulted in an injunction, Congress passed a land-swap statute that would convey the cross and the land upon which it sits to the VFW in exchange for the government obtaining land elsewhere. A federal court blocked implementation of that law, ruling that it was simply an attempt by the government to skirt the injunction.

Today the Supreme Court reversed the lower court.

“The District Court concentrated solely on the religious aspects of the cross, divorced from its background and context,” Kennedy wrote in the plurality decision joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito. “But a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”

Justice Antonin Scalia filed a concurrence joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent, wrote: “I certainly agree that the Nation should memorialize the service of those who fought and died in World War I, but it cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message.”

The complex ruling, which focused on the case at hand and avoided a broader ruling on the First Amendment implications of crosses on public land, touched on a host of legal issues from standing to the appropriateness of in injunctive relief.  The full text of the opinion in Salazar v. Buono can be foun here.

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