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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 23:00 GMT
Top US court takes Klan symbol case
Burning cross
Burning crosses: Associated with Ku Klux Klan racists

The United States Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about whether laws that ban the burning of crosses are unconstitutional.

The practice, long associated with the Ku Klux Klan white supremacist group, is banned by a number of states.


People have the right to use symbols to communicate - they may patriotically wave the flag or burn it in protest, they may reverently worship the cross or burn it as an expression of bigotry

Virginia Supreme Court
However, civil rights advocates will tell the court that the laws are an infringement of the First Amendment of the US Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

The case before the Supreme Court refers to a number of men who were convicted of separate incidents of cross-burning in Virginia four years ago.

One man was fined for leading a rally of 18 robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan members who stood around a burning cross.

Symbolic ritual

In another case, two men were convicted of attempting to burn a cross on the front lawn of a house owned by a black neighbour.

But last year, Virginia's highest court ruled that the state's 50-year-old laws banning cross-burning violate the right to free speech.

The Attorney General in Virginia is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that decision, arguing that the intentional burning of crosses for the purpose of intimidating people ought to be a crime.

But lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union will tell the court that any law that singles out a particular symbol or symbolic ritual for special punishment violates the First Amendment, regardless of how offensive the gesture is.

The court is expected to reach its decision - which will affect around a dozen states - by the middle of next year.

See also:

14 May 02 | Americas
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18 May 00 | Americas
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