Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Supreme Court Reverses Order Barring Display of Cross At World War I Memorial

The U.S. Supreme Court today, in a fragmented decision producing six separate opinions, decided a challenge to Congress' transfer of a religious symbol on federal land to a private party, the VFW. The case involved the long-running dispute over the Sunrise Rock Cross in the Mojave Preserve memorial to those killed in World War I. In Salazar v. Buono, (Sup. Ct., April 28, 2010), the Court reversed the 9th Circuit and remanded the case. The Court of Appeals had found Establishment Clause problems with Congress' transfer of the cross. (See prior posting.) The Supreme Court's decision was announced in an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and joined in part by Justice Alito.

Justice Kennedy concluded that the government's objections to plaintiff's standing could not be raised at this stage of the litigation because the government had not properly sought Supreme Court review of the issue when it was initially decided. He then focused on the complex procedural history of the case. The district court enjoined the government from permitting display of the Cross on Sunrise Rock before Congress passed the statute transferring the land to a private party. The Court of Appeals affirmed on the ground that a reasonable observer would see the cross as an endorsement of religion. Plaintiff's challenge to the land transfer was brought in the form of seeking to apply or extend the original injunction to it. The district court enjoined the transfer on the basis of an improper Congressional purpose. Justice Kennedy objected:
The District Court thus used an injunction granted for one reason as the basis for enjoining conduct that was alleged to be objectionable for a different reason.... [It] failed to consider whether, in light of the change in law and circumstances effected by the land-transfer statute, the "reasonable observer" standard continued to be the appropriate framework through which to consider the Establishment Clause concerns invoked to justify the requested relief. As a general matter, courts considering Establishment Clause challenges do not inquire into "reasonable observer" perceptions with respect to objects on private land....

.... [T]he District Court concentrated solely on the religious aspects of the cross, divorced from its background and context. But a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one 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.
In a one-paragraph concurring opinion, Chief Justice Roberts said that the land transfer was no different that tearing down the cross, selling the land to the VFW, and having the VFW reconstruct the cross.

Justice Alito, writing separately, said he agreed with Justice Kennedy, except he did not see any need to remand the case for further proceedings. He would reverse the decision and instruct the district court to vacate its order prohibiting implementation of the land-transfer statute. He said:
Congress chose an ... approach that was designed to eliminate any perception of religious sponsorship stemming from the location of the cross on federally owned land, while at the same time avoiding the disturbing symbolism associated with the destruction of the historic monument. The mechanism that Congress selected is one that is quite common in the West, a "land exchange."
Justice Scalia wrote an opinion joined by Justice Thomas, concurring in the judgment but arguing that plaintiff lacks Article III standing to pursue what Scalia characterized as new relief, not an appliation of the original injunction. Plaintiff failed to allege any actual or imminent injury from the land transfer, since the only injury plaintiff claimed was his concern with seeing the cross on federal land.

Justice Stevens, in an opininon joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, dissented. Stevens argued that it was proper for the district court to find that the land transfer statute violated its original injunction. He concluded that the land transfer statute did not end government endorsement of the cross:
First, after the transfer it would continue to appear to any reasonable observer that the Government has endorsed the cross, notwithstanding that the name has changed on the title to a small patch of underlying land. This is particularly true because the Government has designated the cross as a national memorial, and that endorsement continues regardless of whether the cross sits on public or private land. Second, the transfer continues the existing government endorsement of the cross because the purpose of the transfer is to preserve its display.
Stevens goes on to assert that the plurality is attempting to reopen a settled issue-- whether the government can endorse the cross because of its dual symbolism. In concluding, he emphasized that because Congress has created no other memorial to the veterans of World War I, this sectarian symbol is the only monument to all the soldiers who died in that war.

Finally Justice Breyer wrote a separate dissent arguing that the Court should have dismissed the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted since the case turns on fairly clear principles of the law of injunctions and presents no federal questions of general significance. A district court has considerable leeway to interpret the meaning of its own injunctions, and should interpret the scope of an injunction in light of the injunction's purpose and history. The district court did that here. The Washington Post reports on the decision.