Date published: May 24, 2010
The U.S. Supreme Court on April 28 decided 5-4 that the First Amendment "accommodates" religious displays on public land. In reference to the display of a cross in the Mojave Desert honoring the lives of soldiers who perished during World War I, a divided court ruled that the Constitution "does not require the eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm." Several years ago, a claim was made that the presence of the cross was an indication of government endorsement of religion.
Speaking for the majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: "A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. Here, a Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten." On the other hand, Justice John Paul Stevens, who opposed the decision, asserted that the government must "avoid endorsement of a particular religious view."
If the Supreme Court decision was surprising, it was because of how the court has stretched the First Amendment's Establishment Clause to the breaking point in the past. That clause states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The purpose of the clause was simply to prohibit the federal government from imposing an established religion on the country; it was not to eliminate religion from the public square, nor was it even intended to apply to other governmental entities. However, the Court has gone so far as to apply the Establishment Clause to local school boards (based on an expansive interpretation of the 14th Amendment) and to bar public-school prayer as an establishment of religion.