April 29, 2010
Decision Allows Congress to Carve Up Public Land to Accommodate Sectarian Symbols
The Center for Inquiry has expressed disappointment in the April 28 Supreme Court decision that urged lower courts to reconsider a Congressional scheme to maintain a white cross in the middle of a federal park as a war memorial. Lower courts had held that the presence of the cross in a federal park, and Congress’s attempt to transfer the patch of land beneath the cross to the veterans’ group that erected the cross, violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 majority concluded that the lower courts erred in their analysis of the Congressionally mandated land transfer. The case will be remanded to lower courts for further proceedings. The move potentially allows Congress to skirt an Establishment Clause violation by creating a privately owned island of land-locked property amid thousands of contiguous acres of national parkland in the California desert.
“The conservative court majority’s opinion is deeply disappointing, and illustrates its increasing hostility to church-state separation claims,” said Derek Araujo, Center for Inquiry vice president and general counsel. “We can expect cases like this one to multiply across the country as a court-sanctioned way to feign compliance with the Establishment Clause. Legislative schemes of this kind would make Swiss cheese of our national parks.”
A California federal court had previously stated that the land swap was an “illicit” way for the government to sidestep a standing ruling that the cross violated the Constitution as government endorsement of religion.
“The court’s majority was clearly determined to keep a Christian cross on display in a federal park,” Araujo said. “This decision does not bode well for the wall of separation between church and state.”
One key aspect the Center for Inquiry finds particularly disturbing is the court majority’s insistence that a Christian cross carries non-religious significance as a symbol honoring America’s war dead. “This endorsement of a sectarian religious symbol for purportedly non-religious purposes should disturb religious and secular Americans alike,” Araujo said.
The Center for Inquiry agrees with the observation of dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, who rightly points out that a Latin cross “…necessarily symbolizes one of the most important tenets upon which believers in a benevolent Creator, as well as nonbelievers, are known to differ….Making a plain, unadorned Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular. It makes the war memorial sectarian.”
The Center for Inquiry/Transnational, a nonprofit, educational, advocacy, and scientific-research think tank based in Amherst, New York, is also home to the Council for Secular Humanism, founded in 1980; and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP), founded in 1976. The Center for Inquiry’s research and educational projects focus on three broad areas: religion, ethics, and society; paranormal and fringe-science claims; and sound public policy. The Center’s Web site is