WASHINGTON – In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court today remanded a case concerning a Latin cross in the Mojave National Preserve back to the district court, saying that the lower court used the wrong legal standard in deciding to invalidate a transfer of the land on which the cross stands to private ownership. The American Civil Liberties Union will continue to argue that the transfer does not remedy the government’s unconstitutional endorsement of one particular religion.
The case, Salazar v. Buono, stems from a complaint raised by veteran and former National Park Service employee Frank Buono, who claimed that the presence of an overtly religious symbol on federal land represented unconstitutional favoritism toward a specific religion.
“Although we're disappointed that the Court did not simply affirm the district court’s ruling that the land transfer was impermissible, we're encouraged that the case is not over,” said Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney and Manheim Family Attorney for First Amendment Rights at the ACLU of Southern California, who argued the case. “The cross is unquestionably a sectarian symbol, and we respectfully but strongly disagree with the suggestion by some members of the court that it does not favor one religion.”
“The Latin cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and there are more appropriate ways for the government to honor veterans of all faiths,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program for Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The case originated in 2001 as a challenge to the presence of a Latin cross on federally owned land in the Mojave National Preserve, about 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles, California. In 2002, while the federal district court case was pending, Congress designated the cross as a national memorial, one of only 49 such memorials around the country. Others include Mount Rushmore, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, although the Mojave cross would be the only one dedicated to soldiers who fought and died in World War I. In an apparent attempt to circumvent the Establishment Clause violation, Congress also transferred one acre of land on which the cross stands to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, with the provision that the VFW continue to maintain it as a war memorial.
The court did not take up the issue of whether Buono had “standing” to bring the case, and as a result, the decision does not bar private citizens from challenging the constitutionality of religious displays on government property in the future.
Photo: The Latin cross atop Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve on April, 2009. Peter J. Eliasberg