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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?


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.

"... 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.

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.

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?

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 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?

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

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.

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