U.S. Supreme Court Will Decide Fate of Mojave Desert Cross

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear a case involving a cross erected in California's Mojave desert to honor war veterans.

The nation's top Court will review a federal appeals court ruling that ordered the removal of the cross and rejected a move by Congress to transfer the ownership of the land upon which the cross sits to a private party.

"This is a critical case that will once again put the spotlight on the constitutionality of religious displays and the proper role of the government and its actions," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which will file an amicus brief supporting the government's position.

"The fact is that the land transfer in this case is appropriate and constitutional. There's nothing wrong with the government transferring property containing symbols with religious significance to private parties."

The Latin cross has been atop land on the Mojave National Preserve, located on the California-Nevada border near Las Vegas, for over 70 years.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars erected the cross in 1934 as a memorial for veterans of World War I. The group originally owned the land on which the memorial sits but had donated it to the government.

A legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union led to a federal district court ruling in 2002 that declared the cross a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Congress directed the Department of the Interior to exchange the land on which the cross sits in exchange for five acres of land from VFW.

But the move was ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit, which ordered the monument and cross dismantled instead.

The fate of the cross, which has been covered in a plywood box since 2002, now rests with the Supreme Court.

"It is bad enough to say that the veterans' memorial is unconstitutional, but it is outrageous to say that the government cannot give the monument back to the people who spilled their blood and put it there in the first place," said Kelly Shackelford of Liberty Legal Institute, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of VFW and other veterans groups.

The brief filed by LLI states, "There could be few if any symbols in Western military heritage more appropriate to honor exemplary service and the giving of one's life to save another than a cross, a universal symbol of beneficent sacrifice."

Both Liberty Legal and ACLJ are also involved in a related case, Summum v. Pleasant Grove, which also deals with donated monuments on public property.

The ACLJ appeared before the Supreme Court in November 2008, asking justices to overturn an appellate ruling that ordered Pleasant Grove City to accept and display a monument from a self-described church called Summum because the city displays a Ten Commandments monument donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

A decision in that case could come at any time from the Supreme Court.

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