Constitutional Clash Over Defunct Land Exchange
Major Religious Establishment Case Rooted in Mojave Cross Deal
Washington, DC — In a potentially far-reaching Establishment Clause case, the U.S. Supreme Court will examine a congressionally-mandated one-acre land exchange to an entity that no longer exists in order to maintain a large cross in the middle of a national park. The case, Buono v Salazar, illustrates that abusive federal land exchange practices may yield even worse constitutional law, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Western Lands Project.
The nearly eight-year case involves attempts by the Bush administration to prevent court-ordered removal of an-eight foot cross from the Mojave National Preserve. In 2003, after losing an appeal of a court-ordered removal of the cross, the Bush administration supported a rider by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), tacked onto the Defense appropriations bill, to trade the one federal acre with the Mojave Cross into private hands. The private party named by the rider is the Barstow chapter of the “Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post #385E”. But that VFW Post’s charter was revoked in May 2007 and declared “defunct” by the organization.
Nonetheless, the Bush Justice Department persisted in bringing the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted the case for its fall docket. The Justice Department is seeking to reverse U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court rulings that the land exchange was “a sham” and a transparent “attempt by the government to evade the permanent injunction enjoining the display of the Latin cross” on federal land.
“This land exchange is both bad policy and bad law,” stated Chris Krupp, staff attorney for the Western Lands Project, which monitors federal land trades and other public land practices. “We would hope the Obama administration takes a step back to see whether the public interest is served by pursuing this case.”
The Mojave Cross is but one of a series of instances in which the Bush administration supported displays of Christian symbols (such as bronze plaques of Bible verses) or materials (for example, a creationist book claiming that the Grand Canyon was the product of Noah’s Flood 6,000 years ago) inside national parks.
“Not another penny of taxpayer money should be spent pursuing former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s fundamentalist agenda,” said PEER Executive Jeff Ruch, whose organization calls these Bush-backed religious efforts “Faith-Based Parks”. “The underlying land exchange is a nullity and should not be the basis for this Supreme Court tipping the scales on separation of church and state.”
Since a federal district court first ordered the removal of the Mojave Cross back in 2002, the cross has been covered by a shroud. In the ensuing years, the removal has been upheld in an unbroken string of decisions and appeals.