U.S. News

Supreme Court hears dispute on cross on park land

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices revealed sharp differences on Wednesday in considering a legal challenge to a large Christian cross intended to serve as a war memorial in a remote part of the California desert.

Pilgrim carrying a cross is silhouetted as he arrives at a train station for World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto, July 22, 2002. REUTERS/Jim Young

The court appeared split along ideological lines during the arguments on whether the cross violated the Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion and whether the problem had been cured by a law adopted by Congress.

Seventy-five years ago, a group called the Veterans of Foreign Wars erected a wooden cross in a remote area that later became part of the Mojave National Preserve. It was part of a memorial honoring World War I soldiers.

Private parties have replaced the cross several times, most recently in 1998. The current cross, which reaches up to 8 feet tall, is made out of white metal pipes.

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia was critical of arguments made by Peter Eliasberg, an attorney for a former National Park Service employee who sued to have the cross removed.

“I think that’s an outrageous conclusion,” Scalia said of the argument that the cross honored only Christian veterans.

Scalia ridiculed the idea that the memorial would have to include the Star of David for Jewish soldiers or the crescent moon symbol for Muslims.

“I don’t agree with you that any time the government allows a religious symbol to be to erected, it has to allow all religious symbols to be erected at the same place,” Scalia told Eliasberg.

The attorney said crosses at war memorials in government property like Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia were acceptable because they were surrounded by symbols from other religions, unlike the Mojave cross which stands alone.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked the government lawyer, “Is there any other national memorial that consists of a solitary cross?”

Congress intervened in the dispute in an effort to cure any constitutional problems by adopting a law that transfers the land from the government to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Justice John Paul Stevens questioned whether the law would sufficiently disassociate the memorial from the government.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan said the government would be willing to put up signs making clear the property no longer was owned by the government, but by the veterans group.

A decision is expected early next year.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman