Federal Appeals Court Upholds ACLU Charge That Cross in Mojave Federal Preserve Violates Constitution

June 7, 2004 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES - A federal appeals court today upheld a lower court's ruling that the presence of a large Christian cross on the federal Mojave Desert Preserve is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

""The court took a look at this issue and concluded that the case couldn't be clearer: a religious symbol on government property violates the U.S. Constitution," said Peter Eliasberg, a managing attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, which brought the challenge. "At every level the courts have rightly agreed with this principle and there's no reason to believe that any amount of political grandstanding is going to impact years of established jurisprudence on these matters."

Ruling unanimously, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a July 2002 opinion that the "primary effect of the presence of the cross" was to "advance religion" and therefore violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The National Park Service, the agency that maintains the cross, has been on notice about First Amendment violations since 1999, when the ACLU of Southern California sent a letter threatening legal action if the cross were not removed. The cross was initially brought to the attention of the ACLU by a member, a practicing Catholic and former Park Service employee.

The cross, which sits on Sunrise Rock, is located on a federal land preserve in southeastern California between the cities of Barstow, California and Las Vegas, Nevada that encompasses roughly 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Desert.

"The ruling couldn't be more timely," said Eliasberg. "And the message couldn't be clearer to those who would have the county engage in a costly and losing battle to defend something that is Constitutionally indefensible. Those who suggest that a reasonable defense could be mounted against such a clear Constitutional violation are engaging in an uninformed, disingenuous campaign."

In a similar defense of religious liberty, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last week agreed to remove a cross from the county's official seal rather than face costly litigation in what would likely be a losing court battle.

The ACLU is committed to the rights of individuals to practice their religions, whether they do so on federal land, in their own back yard, or in a house of worship. Religious freedom is upheld when individual practices are protected, and violated when the government attempts to endorse a particular practice. The ACLU of Virginia recently defended the right of a church group to perform baptisms in a public park. For more information, go to /ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLibertyMain.cfm

The court's decision in the Mojave cross case is available online at http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/ca9/newopinions.nsf/

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