It’s been a long-time waiting, but the Supreme Court will hear today arguments concerning a cross in the Mojave Desert that was erected as a memorial to World War I veterans. This is a legal battle that’s been going on for the past decade, and I remember delving into it a bit when I was at The Sun.
It’s a familiar conflict: Supporters argue the cross is not a religious symbol, civil liberties advocates claim it infringes on any passer-by’s First Amendment rights. For a while now, it’s been covered up by a wooden box.
As powerful as these pro and con arguments are, the Supreme Court may focus more on a technical question that could resolve not only this case but potentially all others involving religious symbols — and perhaps more than that.
It is the gatekeeping question of standing: Who has standing in court to challenge the placement of a religious symbol on public property? The government maintains that an individual who is offended by a religious symbol has not suffered a real injury that justifies a court challenge.
In addition, the government contends that the congressional transfer of the land to the VFW ends any government endorsement of religion. The ACLU counters that the government still favors the cross, by the terms of the land transfer, which designates the cross as a national memorial and declares that the VFW only keeps the land if it also maintains the cross.
If the government and the VFW win on this point, it could mean that for all practical purposes, a government — whether local, state or federal — can put up whatever religious symbols it wants, and there would be no way to challenge it in court.
“If they want to put a cross on every street corner, they could do that,” says Laycock. “There would be no limits on abuses. Government could promote religion as much as it wanted to. And if taking offense at a display doesn’t give standing, the next step might be to say that taking offense at a religious ceremony or prayer isn’t enough to give standing.”
Judgment day is still many months away.