WASHINGTON — In a significant shift away from church-state separation, the Supreme Court gave its approval Wednesday to displaying a Christian cross on government land to honor the war dead, saying the Constitution "does not require the eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm."
Speaking for a divided court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the First Amendment calls for a middle-ground "policy of accommodation" toward religious displays on public land, not a strict ban on symbols of faith.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices reversed lower courts in California that ordered the U.S. Park Service to remove an 8-foot-tall cross that has stood in various forms in the Mojave National Preserve since 1934 as a memorial to the soldiers of World War I.
The long-running dispute over the Mojave cross was the first church-state case to reach the high court since John Roberts became chief justice five years ago and with the substitution of Justice Samuel Alito for Sandra Day O'Connor shortly thereafter.
His opinion recasts the law in a way that will make it harder to challenge other religious displays, such as the Ten Commandments or depictions of Jesus' birth during the Christmas season.
In the past, the high court, led by O'Connor, has said a city or state's display of a religious symbol was unconstitutional if it could seen as an official endorsement of a particular faith.
In 2005, O'Connor retired and was replaced by Alito. On Wednesday, he joined with Kennedy and Roberts. They agreed that if a religious display carries other meaning, it can be upheld. At Christmas, the depictions of a manger scene often come as a part of a display celebrating the holiday. The Ten Commandments are defended on the grounds that they are part of this nation's legal and moral heritage.
The cross, too, "evokes far more than religion," Kennedy said. He faulted the judges in California for having "concentrated solely on the religious aspects of the cross, divorced from its background and context."
"A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, notable contributions and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this nation and its people," he wrote.