Supreme Court Hears Mojave Cross Case

WW I memorial renews debate over religious symbols on public property.

ByABC News
September 24, 2009, 4:38 PM

Oct. 7, 2009— -- Deep in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve in California stands a five foot cross carefully disguised in a plywood box.

The U.S. Park Service was forced to cover the cross until the Supreme Court decides whether the cross can remain in its place as a monument to fallen soldiers during World War I, or whether it must come down because its presence violates the Constitution.

The case is the latest in a recent flurry of challenges to religious symbols placed on public property.

The cross was constructed more than 70 years ago by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

It stood peacefully for over 60 years the Park Service was asked if a Buddhist Shrine could also be built near the cross.

When the Park Service declined the request Frank Buono, a retired National Park Service employee, expressed his dismay that the government was showing favoritism of one religious symbol over another.

While Buono, a Roman Catholic, did not find the cross itself objectionable, he was disturbed that it stood on government property when the government would not allow individuals to erect other permanent displays celebrating other religions.

With the help of the ACLU Buono took his case to federal court and won. The court found that the cross violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution which prohibits the government from giving preference to one religion.

Seeking to quell the controversy, Congress stepped in, trying to find a way to remedy the situation. Congress looked for a fine line between those who viewed the cross as a religious symbol on government property and others, notably veterans, who viewed it as a symbol of the sacrifices of fallen soldiers.

In 2003 Congress found a novel way to deal with the situation: it passed legislation to transfer the land to private ownership.

But transferring the land to private ownership did not end the problem. A federal court enjoined the transfer finding that the congressional response did not adequately resolve the constitutional violation that had occurred.