The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving the Mojave Cross, a war memorial that consists of a Christian cross in the middle of federal land. The Mojave Cross is another of those church and state separation cases that have proven so contentious.
The Mojave Cross was erected on a 4000 foot plateau in the middle of the Mojave desert by World War One medic Riley Bembry in 1934 as a place of reflection for war veterans who had gone to the desert for relief from lung damage caused by mustard gas while on the Western Front. Riley Bembry never got official permission to erect a memorial on public land, but no one seemed to mind at least until the late 1990s.
By that time 1.5 million square miles of the Mojave Desert including the plateau upon which the Mojave Cross stands had been transferred to the National Park Service, making it federal land. After a resident was denied permission to set up a Buddhist shrine, a former deputy superintendent of the preserve upon which the cross sits filed a suit with the help of the ACLU.
A federal judge ordered the cross removed. The cross was ordered covered up while the case worked its way up the appeals process.
In 2001, Congress, then run by Republicans got involved, prohibited money being spent to remove the cross, declared it a national monument, and transferred an acre around the cross to private hands in exchange for another parcel of private land within the federal preserve. An appeals court in San Francisco turned the deal down.
Now the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of the Mojave Cross. How the court will rule cannot be predicted. Previous church state separation cases of this nature seem to have revolved around technical aspects of each case (such as are there secular symbols surrounding the religious symbol) or merely on judicial whim.
In a broader sense, these kind of grinding, eternal legal disputes seem to be motivated by a kind of obsessive compulsive disorder approach to the establishment clause of the US Constitution. Did the founders really mean, when they forbade the establishment of a state run church, stating in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof-” that not even a symbol that could be considered religious be allowed on public land? If the Mojave Cross is allowed to stand, along with religious symbols on soldiers’ grave on public land, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and “in God we trust” on money, is the Theocracy just around the corner?
The exercise of religion is something that is permeated through every aspect of American life. Ninety plus percent of Americans are believers in some kind of Supreme Being. Calling upon the Almighty for solace is a natural as breathing for most people, especially for people who have seen and been touched by war’s devastation. It is not necessarily an endorsement of religion for a government to allow religion, even on land it owns.
Perhaps by taking the case of the Mojave Cross, the Supreme Court can at last inject some measure of sanity and common sense into these church state separation disputes. One can hope that not only will the Court find in favor of those who want to preserve the Mojave Cross, but it will do so not on some narrow definition but rather on a new broad principle that redresses the balance between religion and government.
Source: High court to decide if war memorial violates Constitution, CNN