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The Supreme Court has offered clear rules for religious symbols on public land. The guidance came as the court decided the future of a World War I memorial. It's a 40-foot-high stone cross. This cross was built on land in Maryland that, today, is by a busy traffic intersection, and taxpayers pay for its upkeep. By a 7-2 vote, the court said the cross can stay and the court also offered judgment for other memorials of this sort. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Basically the court said that if a monument has been around a long time and if it was established for nonreligious and nondiscriminatory reasons - in this case to honor World War I dead - it will not have to be taken down or moved to private property. But the court also indicated that new memorials with religious symbols will not be OK.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority decision. He acknowledged that the Latin cross is a Christian symbol but said that fact should not blind us to everything else the cross came to represent in the immediate aftermath of World War I. It was a memorial to the fallen, a place to honor veterans and their sacrifices and a place for the community to gather.
Not all of the six other justices in the majority signed on to everything Alito said. Indeed, two of the conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, only agreed on the bottom line. They would have gone much further to insulate religious symbols from court challenge.
Most legal scholars, both those who applauded the decision and those who did not, saw it as limited. The ACLU's David Cole was deeply disappointed but added...
DAVID COLE: It's a very narrow decision and emphasizes the particular historical significance of World War I memorials.
TOTENBERG: University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, who filed a brief on behalf of Jewish War Veterans and various Christian groups, observed the court did not adopt the Trump administration's argument that the cross has become a universal symbol of sacrifice.
DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: The court didn't go there, so there's some good news here.
TOTENBERG: But conservative scholar Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School noted that the decision seemed to finally kill off a 1971 decision that erected a high wall of separation between church and state, a decision that conservatives have been gunning for for decades. He said the fact that two liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joined most of yesterday's decision shows that...
MICHAEL MCCONNELL: The old strict separationist ideal is gone and now only has - only two supporters on the court.
TOTENBERG: Those two supporters were yesterday's dissenters, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. University of Pennsylvania law professor Marci Hamilton, a separationist advocate, worries about what she sees as land mines planted by Alito for exploitation in future cases.
MARCI HAMILTON: They're actually implying that maybe it's OK to have churches making governmental decisions.
TOTENBERG: In a rare oral dissent from the bench, Justice Ginsburg disputed the majority's characterization of the World War I memorial as representing a nonreligious message honoring the fallen. Because the Christian character of the Latin cross is inescapable, she said, the overwhelming majority of public World War I memorials contain no religious symbols. Instead, they display secular images that respect all members of the armed forces who perished in the service of our country. By maintaining the cross on a public highway, she said, the state places Christianity above all other faiths and conveys a message of exclusion to non-Christians, nearly 30% of the population, telling them they are outsiders, not full members of American society. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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