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Supreme Court Hears Arguments Over Cross at Mojave National Preserve


Is this cross, which was erected in honor of World War I veterans, an inappropriate federal endorsement of Christianity? NPS photo.

Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday held the prospect of being extremely interesting, or boringly technical, in a case that arose over a simple white cross at Mojave National Preserve.

The arguments could be extremely interesting if the justices wade into the subject of whether, by allowing the cross, the federal government is endorsing one religion while overlooking all others. They could be largely boring if instead the justices focus into whether Frank Buono, a former National Park Service assistant superintendent at the preserve, had "standing" to sue over the placement of the cross on park lands. In other words, was Mr. Buono somehow personally injured by the presence of the cross.

The cross, a simple unadorned one dates to 1934, when a wooden one was raised atop Sunrise Rock in honor of Americans who died during World War I. It later was replaced by a more enduring metal cross. As you look at it, it seems like a simple tribute. And yet in 2001 Mr. Buono filed a lawsuit, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, to have the cross removed because it offended him. In a lower court ruling on the matter, a U.S. District judge ordered the cross removed, saying that it was indeed an unconstitutional federal endorsement of Christianity.

Congress became involved in the case at various times by prohibiting the National Park Service from spending money to move the cross, by designating it a national memorial in 1994, and by trying to transfer the acre of land it stood upon to a private Veterans of Foreign Wars group.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from favoring specific religions. Now, if the Supreme Court decides to delve into the more ticklish issue of whether the government in this case is endorsing one religion over all others, how it ultimately rules might "provide additional guidance on when religious displays on public land violate the Establishment Clause, as well as by what methods the government may use to cure violations," notes the Cornell University Law School.

And how the Supreme Court handles this case could send a message to the Park Service regarding how it treats other symbols or structures located within its properties that could be construed as religious. And it also could lead to more lawsuits.

Back in 2000, for instance, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit claiming the federal government was endorsing a Native American religion by restricting access to Rainbow Bridge at Rainbow Bridge National Monument. Of course, that ruling, in which the justices held that the couple that brought the lawsuit had suffered no personal injury and so had no standing to bring the lawsuit, could be brought back to the surface in this case.

But look elsewhere in the Park System:

* The Park Service in 2007 designated a synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as a National Historic Landmark. Could someone argue that means the government endorses Judaism?

* At Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming conflicts arise when Native Americans want to hold ceremonies at the tower and ask that climbing be restricted.

* And then there's the Christian Ministry In the National Parks, which holds non-denominational services every Sunday during the summer in more than 35 national parks. By permitting these services, does the Park Service tacitly endorse religion in general?


And there are all those depictions of Madame Pele at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

There are marked differences between the Mojave cross case and the first example you cited. First, the cross was put up by an individual, without evaluation, discussion or permit. Unlike the Wright synagogue, it has no architectural value (it is just a couple of tubes painted white.)

Another point you didn't address is that a Buddhist group requested permission to place a shrine in the same vicinity and was turned down.

Also, as a "memorial" to war veterans, the cross is entirely exclusive of other faiths. If you doubt this, imagine a large star of David in its spot. Would you feel that was an appropriate tribute to your Baptist Uncle Ernie who died in WWII?

Susan beat me to hitting the post button...

The simple white cross isn't just a simple tribute to veterans of WW1:

The lawsuit came about after NPS refused to allow Jewish or Buddhist symbols to be erected alongside the cross. As long as the NPS would allow other ministries in the parks, the Christian Ministry isn't favoritism of one religion over others.

Easter sunrise services have been held there for decades. I've never seen an Easter sunrise service at my local cemetery, nor do I think they happen at Arlington. The sunrise services are held there because the cross is a religious symbol, not a tribute to veterans.

Several historical parks have chapels in them that are part of the interpretation of the site. Just like the F.L.W. synagogue, they have historic & cultural significance.

It seems to me that Frank Buono just wanted to grab some of the spotlight for him self! I don't see why a cross put up 65 years ago in memory of fallen fellow soldiers is an issue at all. And for Frank to say that it might not be fair to other groups is about the lamest idea I have ever heard! Life itself is not fair and you will never please everyone! As to Susan's comment that a cross is entirely exclusive of other faiths isn't true at all! While a cross is a Christian symbol it is also a symbol to mark a grave! Do you ever pass a cross on the side of the road where someone has dies and think "Oh, they were a Christian" no you think "Oh, someone died there! Personally I think people need to find something better to do with their time and leave the memorial alone!!!

Susan's posting below states, " has no architectural value (it is just a couple of tubes painted white.)" As a Christian, I work diligently on not Judging others, lest I be judged by the standards I apply. Therefore, all I will do is sincerely pray for Susan's salvation, Frank Buono's salvation, and that of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Jesus' name, Amen.

As a practicing Christian, I can understand how someone of a different faith would be upset at seeing that "memorial". The cross as a symbol is offensive to many people, partly because it is a reminder of Jesus' statement that the only way to the Father (God) is through Him, and partly because of the reprehensible behavior of people throughout the centuries claiming to be Christians.
In a similar manner, I have been offended when hiking the Grand Canyon. Areas of surpassing beauty that I consider to have been created by God have been given names such as Zoroaster Temple, Vishnu Temple, Brahma Temple and many other such names. An argument could be made that Hinduism (and some, but not all, other religions) are being endorsed by the government here.
The good thing about this argument is that it recognizes the mutually exclusive worldviews of different faiths. This would not be worth discussing if "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere". Clearly, Mr. Buono thinks it does matter what you believe. In that, I agree wholeheartedly with him.
Please keep us posted as this develops.

For those interested, PBS' News Hour usually has pretty good Supreme Court recaps done by Marsha Coyle (sp?), and NPR's Nina Totenberg does the same for NPR. Keep an eye out.

Has everyone forgotten that our forefathers founded this nation to escape religious persecution? I am tired of worrying about whether my worshiping God is offending someone! We are a melting pot of different religious views. Just because I'm not Jewish doesn't mean that I would be offended by a Jewish monument. Come on people, stand up against religious persecution! God is calling on us to stand up for him!

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