LOS ANGELES - In a ruling today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a previous federal district court decision that the presence of a cross located on the federal Mojave Desert Preserve is a religious symbol and violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The Ninth Circuit's published opinion was written by Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee. All three judges on the panel were appointed by Republican presidents.
"The Court took a look at this issue and concluded that the case couldn't be clearer: a religious symbol on government property violates the U.S. Constitution," said Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "At every level the courts have rightly agreed with this principle and there's no reason to believe that any amount of political grandstanding is going to impact years of established jurisprudence on these matters."
The cross in the Mojave desert sits on a federal land preserve in southeastern California between the cities of Barstow, California and Las Vegas, Nevada. The preserve encompasses roughly 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Desert. The cross itself is located in a section of the preserve known as Sunrise Rock.
The National Park Service (NPS), the agency that is charged with maintaining the cross, has been on notice about First Amendment violations since 1999 when the ACLU/SC sent a letter threatening legal action if the cross were not removed. In December of 2000, the U.S. House of Representatives added a rider to an appropriations bill that prevented the use of federal funds to remove the cross.
Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to remove a cross from the County's official seal rather than face costly litigation in what would likely be a losing court battle.
"The ruling couldn't be more timely," said Eliasberg. "And the message couldn't be clearer to those who would have the County engage in a costly, and losing battle to defend something that is Constitutionally indefensible. Those who suggest that a reasonable defense could be mounted against such a clear Constitutional violation are engaging in an uninformed, disingenuous campaign."