Humanist Legal Center Reminds Court of Cross’s Religious Meaning


Aug. 19, 2009

I make no apologies for trying to clean the public square of government sponsored religious symbols – including Christian crosses and Ten Commandments monuments.

Thus, it is not surprising that I jumped at the opportunity to write a friend-of-the-court brief when the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving a Latin (Christian) cross atop Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve in southeastern California.

The American Humanist Association and five other nonprofits are supporting Frank Buono, a retired National Park Service employee, who brought this legal action seeking the removal of the cross from the Preserve.

The two issues that the Supreme Court will decide in Salazar v. Buono – when it hears oral arguments on Oct. 7, are whether Buono has "standing" (i.e., whether he has sufficient personal interest in the case), and whether the case was "mooted" by Congress's authorization to transfer the land beneath the cross to a private party. (To say that the case is mooted means that it is no longer a live controversy.)

If you are interested in the facts of the case and these procedural issues, please read sections I and II of AHA's brief.

Section III is our greatest contribution to the case.

This section was added to the brief to explain that "The cross reminds both Christians and non-Christians of the death of Jesus Christ."  Thus "the message of the Latin cross is unequivocally religious and has been so throughout history." And further, that the governments continued control over the cross constitutes an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

It is important to point out that the Veterans Administration recognizes 39 emblems of belief for use in its cemeteries across the nation. Thus while the Latin cross may be a symbol of death and burial, it is an inherently Christian symbol of death and burial rather than a secular symbol.

As the Establishment Clause prohibits government from preferring one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion, there is no justifiable basis for permitting government to display a standalone Christian cross in the Preserve.

This case is also very significant because Court's decision will likely affect outcomes in the Mt. Soledad cross case from San Diego and the Utah Highway Patrol Association crosses case, pending in the Ninth and Tenth Circuits, respectively.

I would like to conclude with the following quote from Judge Brennan's dissenting opinion in Valley Forge College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State (1982), quoting himself from Barlow v. Collins (1970):

"…(the) court disregards its constitutional responsibility when, by failing to acknowledge the protections afforded by the Constitution, it uses 'standing to slam the courthouse door against plaintiffs who are entitled to full consideration of their claims on the merits'."

Mr. Chief Justice and members of the Court, please hear our prayer for religious neutrality.

(Attorney Bob Ritter is the legal coordinator of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, where he directs the legal center's activity and represents the AHA in its advocacy and coalition efforts.)