Supreme Court Hears Arguments Over Cross at Mojave National Preserve

Is this cross, which was erected in honor of World War I veterans, an inappropriate federal endorsement of Christianity? NPS photo.

Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday held the prospect of being extremely interesting, or boringly technical, in a case that arose over a simple white cross at Mojave National Preserve.

The arguments could be extremely interesting if the justices wade into the subject of whether, by allowing the cross, the federal government is endorsing one religion while overlooking all others. They could be largely boring if instead the justices focus into whether Frank Buono, a former National Park Service assistant superintendent at the preserve, had "standing" to sue over the placement of the cross on park lands. In other words, was Mr. Buono somehow personally injured by the presence of the cross.

The cross, a simple unadorned one dates to 1934, when a wooden one was raised atop Sunrise Rock in honor of Americans who died during World War I. It later was replaced by a more enduring metal cross. As you look at it, it seems like a simple tribute. And yet in 2001 Mr. Buono filed a lawsuit, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, to have the cross removed because it offended him. In a lower court ruling on the matter, a U.S. District judge ordered the cross removed, saying that it was indeed an unconstitutional federal endorsement of Christianity.

Congress became involved in the case at various times by prohibiting the National Park Service from spending money to move the cross, by designating it a national memorial in 1994, and by trying to transfer the acre of land it stood upon to a private Veterans of Foreign Wars group.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from favoring specific religions. Now, if the Supreme Court decides to delve into the more ticklish issue of whether the government in this case is endorsing one religion over all others, how it ultimately rules might "provide additional guidance on when religious displays on public land violate the Establishment Clause, as well as by what methods the government may use to cure violations," notes the Cornell University Law School.

And how the Supreme Court handles this case could send a message to the Park Service regarding how it treats other symbols or structures located within its properties that could be construed as religious. And it also could lead to more lawsuits.

Back in 2000, for instance, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit claiming the federal government was endorsing a Native American religion by restricting access to Rainbow Bridge at Rainbow Bridge National Monument. Of course, that ruling, in which the justices held that the couple that brought the lawsuit had suffered no personal injury and so had no standing to bring the lawsuit, could be brought back to the surface in this case.

But look elsewhere in the Park System:

* The Park Service in 2007 designated a synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as a National Historic Landmark. Could someone argue that means the government endorses Judaism?

* At Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming conflicts arise when Native Americans want to hold ceremonies at the tower and ask that climbing be restricted.

* And then there's the Christian Ministry In the National Parks, which holds non-denominational services every Sunday during the summer in more than 35 national parks. By permitting these services, does the Park Service tacitly endorse religion in general?


And there are all those depictions of Madame Pele at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

There are marked differences between the Mojave cross case and the first example you cited. First, the cross was put up by an individual, without evaluation, discussion or permit. Unlike the Wright synagogue, it has no architectural value (it is just a couple of tubes painted white.)

Another point you didn't address is that a Buddhist group requested permission to place a shrine in the same vicinity and was turned down.

Also, as a "memorial" to war veterans, the cross is entirely exclusive of other faiths. If you doubt this, imagine a large star of David in its spot. Would you feel that was an appropriate tribute to your Baptist Uncle Ernie who died in WWII?

Susan beat me to hitting the post button...

The simple white cross isn't just a simple tribute to veterans of WW1:

The lawsuit came about after NPS refused to allow Jewish or Buddhist symbols to be erected alongside the cross. As long as the NPS would allow other ministries in the parks, the Christian Ministry isn't favoritism of one religion over others.

Easter sunrise services have been held there for decades. I've never seen an Easter sunrise service at my local cemetery, nor do I think they happen at Arlington. The sunrise services are held there because the cross is a religious symbol, not a tribute to veterans.

Several historical parks have chapels in them that are part of the interpretation of the site. Just like the F.L.W. synagogue, they have historic & cultural significance.

It seems to me that Frank Buono just wanted to grab some of the spotlight for him self! I don't see why a cross put up 65 years ago in memory of fallen fellow soldiers is an issue at all. And for Frank to say that it might not be fair to other groups is about the lamest idea I have ever heard! Life itself is not fair and you will never please everyone! As to Susan's comment that a cross is entirely exclusive of other faiths isn't true at all! While a cross is a Christian symbol it is also a symbol to mark a grave! Do you ever pass a cross on the side of the road where someone has dies and think "Oh, they were a Christian" no you think "Oh, someone died there! Personally I think people need to find something better to do with their time and leave the memorial alone!!!

Susan's posting below states, " has no architectural value (it is just a couple of tubes painted white.)" As a Christian, I work diligently on not Judging others, lest I be judged by the standards I apply. Therefore, all I will do is sincerely pray for Susan's salvation, Frank Buono's salvation, and that of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Jesus' name, Amen.

As a practicing Christian, I can understand how someone of a different faith would be upset at seeing that "memorial". The cross as a symbol is offensive to many people, partly because it is a reminder of Jesus' statement that the only way to the Father (God) is through Him, and partly because of the reprehensible behavior of people throughout the centuries claiming to be Christians.
In a similar manner, I have been offended when hiking the Grand Canyon. Areas of surpassing beauty that I consider to have been created by God have been given names such as Zoroaster Temple, Vishnu Temple, Brahma Temple and many other such names. An argument could be made that Hinduism (and some, but not all, other religions) are being endorsed by the government here.
The good thing about this argument is that it recognizes the mutually exclusive worldviews of different faiths. This would not be worth discussing if "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere". Clearly, Mr. Buono thinks it does matter what you believe. In that, I agree wholeheartedly with him.
Please keep us posted as this develops.

For those interested, PBS' News Hour usually has pretty good Supreme Court recaps done by Marsha Coyle (sp?), and NPR's Nina Totenberg does the same for NPR. Keep an eye out.

Has everyone forgotten that our forefathers founded this nation to escape religious persecution? I am tired of worrying about whether my worshiping God is offending someone! We are a melting pot of different religious views. Just because I'm not Jewish doesn't mean that I would be offended by a Jewish monument. Come on people, stand up against religious persecution! God is calling on us to stand up for him!

If we are going to throw a hissy fit over a memorial on federal land, then maybe we should also go and take down every cross at Antietam, Gettysburg, etc. I am an atheist, but in no way does a cross placed as a memorial in an area that was not even federal land at the time offend me.The cross has existed as a symbol long before Jesus' birth. Maybe we should say it's a cross to represent September Equinox =)

Ranger Holly

Please take down the cross, to allow others to place their symbols there invites spaceship memorials from scientology people etc. And that would be silliness. However, leave the native americans to practice their historical ways. They were here before this load of paper pushing was thought up. In place of the cross there can be a flag flown, or a statue of a large eagle flying (as long as the blue birds dont sue). Something to honor the people originally meant to be honored.

The most offensive people are those who make claims of being offended by symbols of others' religions. Buono has the freedom to look away from anything he finds offensive and should not be allowed to impede on others' freedom of expression in this manner.

I think that the Supreme Court should not side with the man in this case for a couple of reasons:

1. The cross is symbolic and isn't necessarily of major religious importance. If a Buddhist did go to the park in 1934 and put up a Buddhist memorial, nobody would complain today really. It would have been there 75 years now, and frankly it's just a symbol. If it was a Buddhist monument commemorating war veterans, nobody would really care about the religion part. They'd just care about them commemorating war veterans.

2. Though the cross does represent Christianity, it does not exclude other religions from what I've seen in this case. The American Legion will recognize all fallen soldiers, not just Christian ones. All people, regardless of religion, are welcome in the park to look at the memorial and do whatever they want. It's just a cross, nobody's forcing a religion on the people.

3. The Federal Government wasn't really involved in my opinion in the placing of the cross. The land was given by the government to the American Legion, a private organization of veterans, so that they could do what they want with it. The American Legion decided to put up a cross, big deal! It's not like the Federal Government themselves is putting the cross there as a religious symbol. If the American Legion can't put a cross up, then a senator shouldn't be able to keep a Bible in display in his office because it's Federal Land that he's on. I just don't see how the Federal Government is really directly involved.

4. On it directly dealing with the First Amendment, I don't believe it violates that. The first part of the Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Obviously they're not making a law establishing a religion, they're just putting a religion's symbol up. That's not a law. So does it "prohibit the free exercise thereof"? I believe that putting up a Christian symbol does not violate that part of the Amendment. I know that the Buddhist guy has a good argument that they did prohibit the free exercise thereof of Buddhism by denying their right to put up a memorial, but unless he can prove they discriminated against him because of the memorial's religion, I don't think he has a case. And even if they did discriminate against him because of that, obviously he should have the right to put up a Buddhist memorial, but the Christians should have a right to keep theirs up to.

I find it a bit funny that the guy who brought the case to the Supreme Court is saying that the cross violated the establishment part of the Amendment, but he's still OK with keeping both the Buddhist and Christian memorial up: But it's not OK to have just the Christian one up.

PEOPLE you all have way too much time on your hands !! go volunteer too feed the hungry or something worth while..

I've seen many cemeteries and gravesites in Shenandoah and the Great Smokies, both ancient and recent. Most have religious symbols or script on them. I don't know of anyone who is "offended" by them. This country was founded on the premise of freedom of religion, and we would be wise to respect it. Those who claim offense at "pagan" names for landmarks should be reminded of what Jesus said about wearing one's religion on his sleeve. I don't think the Supremes will be fooled by phony piety either. Mr. Buono should have paid more attention to his job. This whole thing is really very silly.

Having said all that, if I ever make it to a Hawaii NP I will be sure to leave an offering to Pele. It's my opinion this country needs all the help it can get!

for what its worth, Brian's #3 is not accurate.

It was federal land (but not NPS) when the first cross was erected by a private party.

The congressional transfer to VFW (not American Legion) was not "so that they could do what they want with it". The condition is that if they don't keep the cross up and keep it a memorial to WW1 veterans, the land reverts to federal ownership.

Ranger Holly: I believe that we can say its a cross to celebrate the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox.

Any tribute to a veteran who has fought to keep this country free is fine with me.

Ed: This comment was edited.

I don't believe in the separation of Church and state. Christianity and all its values should be the official religion of the United States and Europe, too, with tolerance for all the religions of others, including those who have migrated legally and illegally to our shores. Any other position is just contradictory and has resulted in an unavoidable state atheism and failure of our systems across the board, but most notably recently, in our economic platform. Our word is no longer our bond, because we have no 'official' standard outside of those we can vote to change at any time. Not good enough, not strong enough. Let India do the same. Let the Islamic countries do the same.

I don't really have an opinion either way on whether or not the cross should go down, but the reading of more details on the case are interesting.

It appears rather clear that the land was transferred to the VFW to get around the currently standing court order mandating that the cross come down. If it's federal land it comes down. The question before the court is whether or not the transfer was a legal means of getting around the court order and if it's legal for the federal government to transfer land with the implied purpose of erecting or maintaining a religious symbol. Part of it was that there were no competitive bids and that the VFW was clearly given preferential treatment in the land swap. Apparently in arguments, the primary concern seems to be about the legality of the transfer and Frank Buono's standing to protest the transfer.

I'd note that part of the arguments involved discussions about national cemeteries. I've actually been in the San Francisco National Cemetery, which is in Golden Gate National Recreation Area as part of the Presidio of San Francisco. I think they get around some of the thorny issues of having crosses on grave markers or memorial by actually allowing different religious symbols to be displayed. The occasional grave marker does have a Star of David or no religious symbol at all.

In addition, some sources have noted that Frank Buono is a practicing Catholic.


A moral and ethical society need not be a religious society. While it is true that many morals, norms, and values have been passed down through religions, that is not and should not be relied upon as the official means. Additionally, where did you hear that the recession was caused by people not being christians!? And by the way, the "official" standard of christian religion has, and continues to change as it adjusts to an ever changing society. So in a sense, religious beliefs are voted on and changed all the time. For proof look at how many different flavors christian churches there are around the world. Would just one be picked to be the real one or would they all be represented? If you really wanted stability and predictability maybe shoot for something like Catholicism or Buddhism.... Religion is far too personal for the government to become involved in. The government should work to show that it is officially neutral when it comes to beliefs (or disbelief) in a higher power.

-A. Nony-Mous


If the cross was there when the park became a national preserve, it should stay there. It is part of our national heritage. Just look around people, and learn to appreciate our diversity that makes us a better nation. Get over it, will ya!

I am 23 years old and I practice no religion and this story just pisses me off! Buono should ... be ashamed. I'm glad he was a former NPS employee; who knows what else he would have tried to change or remove. I have realized that it is the people who try to sue over religious intolerance that are the most insecure in their beliefs and religion. If they were truly happy and content with what they believed then they would not be "offended" so easily by other religions. This cross was put up in 1934. That makes it historical and it should in no way be removed and I bet our veterans of WWI are turning over in their graves at what has happened to this take that down would mean they died in vain!!! What's next people??? Are we going to spend more money this country doesn't have on trying to remove "IN GOD WE TRUST" off the back of our money??? This is ridiculous!

This comment was edited. While we appreciate all comments, we also try to toe the line on decency and respect for views and won't hesitate to use the delete button when those lines are crossed. It's not hard to make your point without being insulting. -- Ed.

In visiting Carlsbad NP, we saw many things in the caves left from the mining days. These things aren't pretty and can make the cave look less attractive in places. However, because they have been there more than 50 years, they are considered "historic artifacts" and cannot and will not be removed. In other words, they are part of the history and they stay. So, why is a similar argument not allowed here? If people are offended by it's religious association, can they not look at it as a historic marker? I don't like seeing some of the "graffiti" and other litter in the caves but looking at them as historic makes them more tolerable.

Again - no big deal either way for me how this goes down. However - in this case Frank Buono is not necessarily being offended by *other* religions. He is a practicing Catholic himself; some articles on him describe him as a rather devout Catholic. His argument has been that there is a sole religious marker at the site and that the NPS had denied requests to install markers representing other religions before the transfer. In many ways the question is about equal opportunity. When the government provides chaplains, they must do so for different religions. In the US military there are Jewish and now even Islamic chaplains.

My tax dollars pay for maintaining that land. When i drive that road the cross is prominent. I want my Flying Spaghetti Monster memorial to the war dead of the Civil War placed prominently on that rock too. In fact, I want mine on a post at the top so everyone passing by can't miss seeing it. I don't give .... care ....if life isn't fair as you say. If we're talking about my tax dollars and federal land it better be about as close to fair as the Supreme Court justices can make it.

This post was sanitized just a teense. -- Ed.

Jeesh! All I did was search for "Mojave National Preserve" so I could plan my visit, and I came up with this!

The whole issue, which centers on separation of church and state, is a farce. There has never been separation of church and state in this country. If they were separated, then there would be no Christmas tree on the White House lawn. In fact, Christmas would either (1) not be an official federal holiday at all, or (2) it would - and so would the major holidays of every religion on earth. (Hmmm - what would that do to the economy? We'd all be off work about every other day...) There's more. Here in California, where most cities were founded by the Spaniards, almost all of them have religious names. Should we rename Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Sacramento, etc. etc. etc. because these names purposely endorsed Catholic saints and concepts? How about non-Spanish but still religious place names such as St. Paul, Minnesota? Or the states of Virginia and Maryland? What "Virgin" and which "Mary" do you think those refer to?

Ummm...actually, Anon, both Virginia and Maryland were named for English monarchs. Respectively, Queen Elizabeth (the 'Virgin Queen') and King Charles' I wife Queen Henrietta Maria, otherwise known as Queen Mary.

Whoa! I blew that one! Other comments still apply.

I personally am a practicing Catholic, and believe that the cross should be allowed to stay up. However, it is a matter of basic human respect to allow other religious monuments to be constructed as well. Not only Christians died during World War I; Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, etc. did too and if they wish to have a symbol of their faith put up next to the cross, who is the Congress to say no?

There was a case a few years ago of the 130 ft tall cross on Mount Davidson in San Francisco. It was located on a city park that was purchased by the city after the first cross was erected.

They had similar problems to what's now going on at Mojave National Preserve with a singular (i.e. no other displays from other sects) religious display on government property. I thought they initially tried to sell the land with the promise that the cross be preserved, but in the end they put the property up for sale with a competitive bidding process. The buyer was intent on saving the cross, but there could have been a different buyer who could have taken it down.

I think the sticky situation here is that Congress apparently sold it with a specific requirement that effectively meant that the cross must stay up. That's probably where it runs into the establishment clause, where they intentionally sold it to a group intent on keeping the cross rather than putting it up for a competitive bid where it could have gone to someone who wanted to take it down.

I am so filled with sorrow at what this nation is becoming. I joined the army in 1983 and my oath included "so help me God". I have 4 combat deployments and I will tell you before any big mission the Chaplain would come and pray, no one NO ONE walked away or refused. The cross is a sign a symbol of our belief and our dedication. I agree there are other religions that would like to place thier symbols next to a cross and i assure my brothers and i have no issue with it. What has happened to this nation when people refuse to stand for our National Anthem, or remove a hat and stand when our flag passes. Why is God who has been with us from day 1, now an outcast to this nation?

Because, soldier, your experience is yours, your god is yours, and others have equally valid experiences and gods.

I enlisted 20 years before you and am also a combat vet, and have a totally different spiritual life than yours. Equally valid or invalid as yours for you. I would really not want to impose my personal experience with my gods on you, nor you on me.

No, we rarely walked away when a chaplain spoke with us. Mostly, though, we scratched where it itched, checked our gear, and kept quiet while those of you who cared to, prayed. It was mutual respect and not agreement.

"... in 2001 Mr. Buono filed a lawsuit, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, to have the cross removed because it offended him. "

That sounds suspiciously like a bit of an editorial comment. I am quite certain that he did not sue "because the cross offended him." There is no constitutional right to not be offended. There is, however, legal precedent regarding the separation of church and state. Somehow, I think it might be a bit better journalism for you to edit your article so that it reflects this truth. As it stand it suggests a point of view rather than an unbiased report.

Anonymous, if you consider court documents "editorial comment," then I guess I'm guilty. Here's the second sentence of the case syllabus filed with the U.S. Supreme Court:

Claiming to be offended by a religious symbol’s presence on federal land, respondent Buono, a regular visitor to the Preserve, filed this suit alleging a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and seeking an injunction requiring the Government to remove the cross.