The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a federal court overstepped its boundaries in ordering the removal of a long-standing memorial cross in California's Mojave Desert.
A white, seven-foot cross, which was erected as a memorial by the Veterans of Foreign Wars over 75 years ago in the Mojave National Preserve, will be allowed to stay.
Before today's ruling, the cross was covered with a plywood box in accordance with a lower court’s order. A district court initially ruled that the cross had to be removed from the land.
Congress then enacted legislation ordering the Department of the Interior to transfer an acre of land which included the cross to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. A former National Park Service employee, Frank Buono, sued to have the cross removed or covered after the agency refused to allow the erection of a Buddhist memorial nearby.
Supreme Court justices told the federal judges on Wednesday that they did not take sufficient notice of the government's decision to transfer the land to private ownership, and that they went too far in ordering the removal of a congressionally endorsed war memorial.
The Supreme Court ruling was 5-4, with the more conservative justices being in the majority.
Justice Paul Stevens, who was one of the four justices who opposed the memorial, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that although he believed fallen soldiers deserve a memorial, in his opinion the government “cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who supported the ruling, countered Justice Stevens, saying that “Here one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion.”
Speaking on the wider implications of the memorial, Justice Kennedy stated that it also “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.”
In an interview with CNA last October, Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va.) echoed the sentiments of Justice Kennedy, saying that the “ripple effect” from today's ruling, were it opposed to the memorial, would have been “enormous.” The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, praised the ruling. “The Court’s ruling is simple common sense: Americans can say what they want about religion on their own property—even if others disagree,” said Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director of the Becket Fund. “A cross on private property does not establish a state religion.”
Rassbach explained that the case has broad implications for the display of religious symbols around the country. “Stripping this country of religious references would turn national monuments like Arlington Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial into Swiss cheese. The First Amendment guarantees the right to speak and believe freely; it does not give busybodies the right to cut down religious symbols they don’t like.”