Justices consider fate of cross built on public land

WASHINGTON — A cross erected in California's remote Mojave National Preserve captivated the Supreme Court on Wednesday, as the justices clashed in a closely watched religion case.

The long-running dispute seemed to divide the court along ideological lines. Liberals voiced skepticism about government's support for the cross memorial, while conservatives suggested that they have little problem with the Latin-style cross, which was installed 75 years ago.

"I don't agree that every time the government allows one religious symbol to be erected it has to allow all religious symbols to be erected in the same place," Justice Antonin Scalia told an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.

Other justices, however, voiced concern that the federal government's entanglement with the desert cross could violate the First Amendment, which bars Congress from passing any law "respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The cross stands on federal land. Even though Congress wants to transfer the property to private owners, federal fingerprints would remain. The cross is a designated national memorial, and even after being transferred, the land could revert to government ownership eventually.

"How can you say it's completely disassociated?" a dubious Justice John Paul Stevens asked the Obama administration's top lawyer.

In turn, Solicitor General Elena Kagan said that simply posting signs indicating that the cross is no longer on public property could cure any First Amendment concerns about the government endorsing a particular religious symbol.

The hourlong oral argument in the case, now called Salazar v. Buono, was rooted in the cross that the Veterans of Foreign Wars' Death Valley Post 2884 erected in 1934 atop Sunrise Rock. A plaque that explained that the cross stood "in memory of the dead of all wars" is now missing.