WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a federal judge erred in ordering the removal of a large Christian cross intended to serve as a war memorial in a remote part of the California desert.
A federal court in California had said the cross, which sits atop an outcropping in the federally-owned Mojave National Preserve, violated the constitutional ban on government endorsement of religion.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the judge in the case should not have blocked the transfer of the land around the cross from the government to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the group that erected it in 1934 to honor World War I soldiers.
Congress had passed a law in 2004 authorizing the transfer to eliminate constitutional concerns.
The high court, however, did not rule on the constitutionality of the cross. Writing the court’s main opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the federal judge was wrong when he blocked the transfer.
The ruling was a setback for Frank Buono, the former National Park Service employee who sued in 2001 to remove the cross, which reaches up to 8 feet high and is made out of white metal pipes.
The court’s four liberal justices dissented.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who has announced his retirement, wrote that the transfer of ownership did not cure the initial constitutional violation that the cross conveyed a message of government endorsement of religion.
Justice Department attorneys have said the government would be willing to put up signs making clear the property no longer was owned by the government. Private parties have replaced the cross several times, most recently in 1998.
The Supreme Court case is Salazar v. Buono, No. 08-472.
Editing by Paul Simao
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.