- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in the legal fight over a cross honoring World War I soldiers that was erected more than 70 years ago in a remote section of California desert.

The cross was erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a memorial to fallen service members in what is now the federal Mojave National Preserve. A district court ruled the cross cannot be placed on federal land because that would violate a First Amendment clause prohibiting the government from endorsing a religion.

Congress enacted legislation directing the Interior Department to transfer an acre of land, including the cross, to the VFW in exchange for a parcel of equal value.

However, a district court stopped the government from implementing the legislation, then the decision was upheld in 2004 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco. The roughly 6-foot-tall cross has been covered in plywood for the past several years.

Legal experts say the high court’s decision will be a good indication on how the nine justices view the separation of church and state.

The respondent in the case, Salazar v. Buono, is former National Park Service employee Frank Buono.

Mr. Buono, who is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued to have the cross removed or covered after the Interior Department would not permit a Buddhist memorial to be erected nearby.

Mr. Buono describes himself as a Catholic with no objection to religious symbols.

The high court says one of two questions it will consider is whether Mr. Buono has legal standing when he has no objection to the public display of a cross. He is just “offended” by the public land not being “an open forum on which other persons might display other symbols.”

The other question, assuming Mr. Buono has standing, is whether the appeals court erred in blocking the Act of Congress “providing for the transfer of the land to private hands.”

The Obama administration wants the court to rule that Mr. Bruono has no legal standing because as a Christian he suffers no harm from the cross and says the land transfer resolves the First Amendment issue.

Veterans groups are split on the case. Jewish and Muslim veterans object to the cross. Others fear a ruling in favor of Mr. Buono would jeopardize other war memorials with religious symbols.

This story is based in part of wire service reports.

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