US Supreme Court: Mojave cross case belongs in appellate court

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Kitty Felde/KPCC

Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars gather in front of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. on April 28, 2010.

By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court today ordered a federal appeals court to look again at a land swap aimed at keeping a large cross in place in the Mojave National Preserve. The cross was put there 75 years ago to honor fallen soldiers of World War I.

It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that anyone raised questions about a religious symbol on public land. That’s when Congress let the Interior Department swap land with the Veterans of Foreign Wars to put the cross on private property.

Joe Davis of the VFW said the cross was erected in 1934 to honor fallen World War I soldiers. He insisted it's "not a cross in the religious sense." Davis compared the wooden cross on the hill to the nation’s second highest medals for bravery — the Air Force Cross, the Navy Cross, and the Distinguished Service Cross. "It’s not about religion," he said. "It’s about respect."

A federal appeals court ruled the land swap didn’t resolve church-state concerns. But the Supreme Court said the swap was not improper; it’s sent the case back to the appeals court.

VFW chief counsel Kelly Shackelford said the decision is an important first step. "You now have a number of justices beginning to speak to this very issue." He said the U.S. Supreme Court made a "very strong statement" that religious symbols do not have to be "religiously cleansed from our country’s landscape."

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “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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