For nearly 75 years it stood out in California's Mojave desert: a roughly 6 foot cross giving silent tribute to long dead World War I soldiers. The cross, sitting atop Sunrise Rock, has been a popular Easter Service site for decades. But today it's transformed by court order into what looks like a blank sign thanks to the plywood covering now surrounding the memorial. "From a cross to a plywood covering is the evolution the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) would like to see with regards to our nation's religious heritage," worries Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if the cross can once again be unveiled. During the first week of its new session the nine justices heard oral arguments regarding the cross' future on Oct. 7. At stake: Is the government violating the Constitution and favoring one religion over another by allowing a simple cross in federal park land in the middle of nowhere?
During questioning, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia called "outrageous" the argument that the cross only honored Christian veterans: "I don't agree . . . that any time the government allows a religious symbol to be erected, it has to allow all religious symbols to be erected at the same place."
The implications of the ruling, not expected for several months, could extend far beyond the desert. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who attended the arguments, fears that "if this case goes the wrong way then virtually every cross on display across the country could be subject to attack."
Congress has stepped in and transferred the land around the cross to the private Veterans of Foreign Wars. The Obama administration, inheriting this case from the Bush White House, is arguing that this transfer should end the separation of church and state controversy. But lower courts have invalidated the transfer, and conservatives are hoping for a 5-4 high court ruling in favor of the cross. "Just because a cross is a religious symbol doesn't mean it can't be used as a war memorial for the dead," argues Eric Rassbach with the Becket Fund.