April 28, 2010

High Court Decision in Salazar v. Buono

The U.S. Supreme Court today overturned a lower court ruling that had ordered the removal of a cross from a World War I memorial located in California’s Mojave National Preserve. Prior to the high court’s decision in this case, Salazar v. Buono, a federal district court had ruled that allowing the eight-foot-tall cross to remain on the preserve (which is a national park) violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The same district court later ruled that a 2003 federal law aimed at eliminating the Establishment Clause problem by transferring the property around the cross into private hands was an invalid attempt by the U.S. Congress to evade the district court’s earlier ruling. But in its decision today, a divided Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the lower court had not properly considered the validity of the congressional statute transferring the property, known as Sunrise Rock, from public to private hands.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in announcing the judgment of the court, stated that Congress’ intent in passing the land-transfer statute was to maintain a war memorial rather than to promote a particular religious creed. “By dismissing Congress’ motives as illicit, the District Court took insufficient account of the context in which the statute was enacted and the reasons for its passage,” Kennedy wrote. “Private Citizens put the cross on Sunrise Rock to commemorate American servicemen who died in World War I.” Accordingly, the high court ordered the district court to reconsider whether the land transfer changed circumstances enough to allow the cross to remain without violating the Establishment Clause.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said the district court had been correct both in its original ruling that the cross should not be displayed in the preserve and in its subsequent decision that the land-transfer statute did nothing to alter the fact that a sectarian religious monument essentially remained in a national park. “The land-transfer statute mandated transfer of the land to an organization that has announced its intention to maintain the cross on Sunrise Rock,” Stevens wrote. “True, the government would no longer exert control over the cross. But the transfer itself would be an act permitting its display.”

The Pew Forum has a number of resources on the Salazar case and religious displays in general. These include an “In Brief” report on the facts of the dispute and the arguments made by both sides in the case and a detailed legal backgrounder on the constitutional questions surrounding religious displays. The full text of the decision is available on the Supreme Court’s website at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-472.pdf.

Photo credit: Las Vegas Review-Journal, 2002