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:
* 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?