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Desert cross before Supreme Court

Boarded-up cross in the Mojave National Preserve (undated image from the Liberty Legal Institute)
The memorial cross has been boarded up following earlier court rulings

A long legal fight involving a cross in California's Mojave desert is being considered by the US Supreme Court.

The cross, put up 75 years ago as a World War I memorial, has been covered up since lower courts ruled that it was illegal because it was on public land.

Under the US Constitution's First Amendment, the government is barred from showing religious preference.

Congress moved the land to private ownership. But the plaintiff says it is wrong to have only a Christian symbol.

The case comes on the third day of the Supreme Court's new session, the first for the recently appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

On Tuesday, the nine-judge panel heard arguments in another First Amendment case involving the right of a Virginia man, Robert Stevens, to distribute videos showing dog-fighting.

Although a 1999 law bars depictions of animal cruelty, an appeals court overturned his conviction on the grounds that it infringed his constitutional right to free speech.

The Supreme Court will have to decide whether depictions of animal cruelty should join child pornography in a tiny category of expression so abhorrent that it cannot enjoy First Amendment protection, says the BBC's Paul Adams in Washington.

Doughnut hole

In the Mojave case, Frank Buono, a former National Park Service employee, sued to have the 8ft-high (2.4m) wooden cross covered or removed after the government agency refused to put up a Buddhist memorial nearby.

Memorial cross in the Mojave National Preserve (undated image from the Liberty Legal Institute)
The land on which the cross stands has been transferred to private hands

He is a Catholic but says the government is wrong to allow the display of only one religion's symbol and to exclude others.

The Obama administration wants the memorial to remain and argues that the transfer of the patch of land on which it stands in the Mojave National Preserve to private ownership in 2004 resolved the issue.

An appeals court previously rejected that argument, saying that "carving out a tiny parcel of property in the midst of this vast preserve - like a doughnut hole with the cross atop it - will do nothing to minimize the impermissible government endorsement" of a religious symbol.

The administration also argues that, as a Christian, Mr Buono has not been personally harmed by the presence of the cross and so has no right to bring the case.

The court, which could use the case to make a statement about its view of the separation of church and state, is expected to deliver its ruling next spring.



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