For Immediate Release
Americans United Urges Supreme Court to Reject Scheme Designed to Keep Cross on Public Land
WASHINGTON - Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged the
Supreme Court to overturn a congressional scheme to maintain a cross on
public land in California, insisting that government should refrain
from displaying sectarian symbols.
Americans United made the argument in a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday in Salazar v. Buono,
a legal battle centering on the display of a cross at the Mojave
National Preserve in California. The case will come before the high
court Oct. 7.
The cross at issue in the dispute was originally erected by the
Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1934 and has since been replaced several
times by private citizens.
"The cross is a powerful symbol of the Christian faith," said the
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It does
not represent all Americans. Arguing that the cross is ‘non-sectarian'
or that it is a generic symbol for all war dead is offensive to
non-Christians and many Christians as well."
In 2003, Congress approved riders to a Defense Department bill
declaring the cross a "national memorial" and mandating a land exchange
that would transfer the cross and the property beneath it to private
hands. Lynn said this was an obvious ploy designed to keep the
Christian symbol in place.
Lynn noted that a request by another citizen to display a Buddhist
symbol in the area was denied. This is evidence, he continued, of
unconstitutional government favoritism toward one religion.
AU's brief asserts, "Government-sponsored religious symbols are
potent forms of speech that can have real, palpable effects on people
who are subjected to them.
"The harm from them is not that they evoke distaste, displeasure, or
even disgust," the brief continues. "It is that they deprive citizens
of the use and enjoyment of public lands, because using a public
facility where the government has chosen to erect a monument to one
faith stigmatizes nonadherents as second-class citizens, while
demeaning the faith of adherents by coopting what is sacred."
Americans United sharply disagrees with the views of Religious Right
legal groups, which have filed legal documents before the Supreme Court
arguing that the case is trivial because government display of the
cross causes no harm.
Noting that "symbols have power," Americans United insists, "The
cross is, of course, the ‘supreme emblem of Christianity,' and one of
humanity's most ancient, widely recognized, and deeply hallowed
symbols.... To dismiss an official display of a large cross as merely
passive and therefore insignificant...is to misunderstand not only the
display's purpose, but also the cross's essential nature and abiding
power, both for those who cherish it and for those who do not." The AU brief also urges the Supreme Court to leave intact well-established doctrine about "standing" - the right to sue.
Lynn said he hopes the court makes it clear that individuals who
oppose government display of religious symbols have the right to
challenge them in court.
The brief was drafted by AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B.
Katskee and AU Madison Fellow Elizabeth Stevens with input from AU
Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.
Joining AU on the brief are the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish
Council for Public Affairs, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation,
the North American South Asian Bar Association, People For the American
Way Foundation and the Union for Reform Judaism.
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Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.