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Opponents weigh in on Supreme Court Mojave cross decision

Veterans groups say the Mojave cross was no different from other war memorials with religious imagery. Opponents of the Supreme Court decision vow to fight on.

By Staff writer / April 28, 2010

Sgt. James Kelly (l.) and Sgt. Zachary Thomson read the names of 28 slain veterans at the Mojave Desert Memorial in this Sept. 17, 2009, file photo. They traveled 1,500 miles from Louisiana while on leave from Iraq in order to pay tribute to slain veterans. A legal challenge questioned whether the cross – a religious symbol – could be on federal land. The Supreme Court ruled in the case Wednesday.

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Supporters of an eight-foot-tall cross on a hilltop in the Mojave Desert are hailing a US Supreme Court decision to overturn a lower court order that the cross must be removed from federal land because it violated the separation of church and state.

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The high court on Wednesday in a 5-to-4 decision instructed the district court to reexamine the issue, including a land-swap authorized by Congress that would convert the land around and under the cross to private property.

The federal judge had earlier rejected that possible legislative solution as an illicit attempt to evade a court order.

“We applaud the Supreme Court for overruling the decisions below, but this battle is not over,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of Liberty Counsel, an advocacy group that is representing the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other military service organizations seeking to keep the cross in its present location.

The cross was erected in 1934 on federal land in the Mojave National Preserve. It was built and maintained by private veterans groups as a memorial to fallen service members in World War I.

A win for war memorials with religious imagery

After a legal challenge, a federal judge ruled that a cross on public land violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government endorsement of religion. He ordered the cross removed. An appeals court agreed.

As the appeals proceeded, the cross was covered in a plywood box.

“It is a disgrace that this memorial to our fallen veterans has been covered in a box of plywood for ten years while the case made its way to the US Supreme Court,” Mr. Shackelford said. “This box must come off.”

He added, “No war memorial with religious imagery is safe until the court rules that these memorials … are allowed under the Constitution.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy offered veterans some encouragement in his 19-page plurality decision. “The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society,” he wrote.

Kennedy added: “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.”

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