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Now, this is a significant victory worth celebrating. In a very closely-watched case, the Supreme Court ruled that a World War I memorial in California’s Mojave Desert that features a memorial cross can remain in place.
The high court said that the Constitution “does not require the eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.” The court also stated: “The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society. . . . Rather, it leaves room to accommodate divergent values within a constitutionally permissible framework.”
The plurality opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy correctly concluded that “a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”
The war memorial in question was erected more than 75 years ago by Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to honor fallen service members in a remote area that is now part of a federal preserve. After the National Park Service denied a request to build a Buddhist shrine near the cross in 1999 and declared its intent to remove the cross, Congress designated the cross and an area of adjoining property as a national World War I memorial. Congress directed the Department of the Interior to convey one acre of property that included the memorial to the VFW in exchange for a five-acre parcel of equal value. The land could revert back to the federal government if the site ever ceases to be used as a war memorial.
It’s unfortunate that the high court stopped short of declaring the statute clearing the way for the land transfer constitutional. Justice Samuel Alito argued that the Court should have taken that action and wrote in a concurring opinion:
“If Congress had done nothing, the Government would have been required to take down the cross, which had stood on Sunrise Rock for nearly 70 years, and this removal would have been viewed by many as a sign of disrespect for the brave soldiers whom the cross was meant to honor. The demolition of this venerable, if unsophisticated, monument would also have been interpreted by some as an arresting symbol of a Government that is not neutral but hostile on matters of religion and is bent on eliminating from all public places and symbols any trace of our country’s religious heritage.”
We represented 15 members of Congress in our amicus brief in this case. And, the decision upholding the display of the war memorial cross is an important one and represents a victory against anti-religious hysteria.
Barry, this decision also sent a message that the mere existence of a religious symbol in a public place does not create a constitutional crisis. The decision signals that other longstanding public war memorials that include crosses–such as the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, and the Argonne Cross and Canadian Cross of Sacrifice at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.–are constitutionally sound.
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