Christine Wetzel/Las Vegas Review Journal/AP
A man walks near the controversial cross, which was covered by a tarp in this 2003 photo, on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve in California.
A man walks near the controversial cross, which was covered by a tarp in this 2003 photo, on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve in California. Christine Wetzel/Las Vegas Review Journal/AP
The Supreme Court appeared divided along philosophical lines Wednesday as justices heard arguments in a long-running legal battle over a cross built as a memorial to U.S. war dead on federal park land in California's Mojave Desert.
The Obama administration argued that Congress removed any constitutional questions over the separation of church and state when it transferred ownership of the land where the cross stands to a private owner. The approach appeared to have some traction with the court's conservative justices.
Justice Samuel Alito asked, "Isn't that a sensible interpretation" of a court order prohibiting the cross' display on government property?
But the more liberal justices seemed to agree with a federal appeals court that invalidated the transfer, saying Congress was trying to maneuver around the First Amendment.
Opponents of the cross have argued that the presence of a Christian symbol on public land violates the First Amendment's prohibition against the government favoring a particular religion. But those who want the cross to remain say it's a historical symbol that is intended to honor all war dead.
The cross has stood on an outcropping of rock in a remote part of the California desert for 75 years. It was originally erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars without the permission of the government and been rebuilt twice since then.
In 1999, a Buddhist asked the National Park Service for permission to build a Buddhist shrine near the cross, but the request was refused.
Courtesy of the Liberty Legal Institute
Pending legal review, the cross at the Mojave National Preserve has been hidden within a plywood box. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether its status violates the Constitution's ban on establishment of religion.
Pending legal review, the cross at the Mojave National Preserve has been hidden within a plywood box. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether its status violates the Constitution's ban on establishment of religion. Courtesy of the Liberty Legal Institute
That led a former park service employee, Frank Buono, to challenge the presence of the cross, saying it was unconstitutional to have a religious symbol on public land. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco has sided with Buono in several instances and ordered the cross removed. Each time, Congress has intervened, and for now, the cross stands covered with plywood.
In addition to transferring ownership of the land, lawmakers have also prohibited the park service from spending money to remove the cross, and later designated the site a national memorial to those who died during World War I.
On Wednesday, Obama administration attorneys contended that Buono did not have legal standing to file the suit in the first place because he's a Christian and was not harmed by the cross' presence.
Veterans groups are on both sides of the case, Salazar v. Buono. Some worry that other religious symbols that serve as war memorials might be threatened if the court sides with Buono.
Some Jewish and Muslim veterans maintain that the Mojave cross honors Christian veterans.
From NPR staff and wire reports