Saturday, May 8, 2010
High court gets it wrong in church-state case
There was a time in this country when most people understood what the U.S. Constitution said, even on controversial and evolving legal situations like the separation of church and state. States and municipalities did whatever they wanted, pretty much, whether constitutional or not, like they still do sometimes, but the U.S. Supreme Court always had the last and most reasonable word. Of course it wasn't always so -- there have, as we all know, been some amazing doozies over the years. But that was then, before the likes of Byron White and William Rehnquist were on the court. Now, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas in four of the panel's nine seats, the high court can no longer be relied on for sound reasoning in the face of the kind of blatant partisanship that comes from highly paid advocates. Each yearly term of the current panel reveals further examples of this, from the utterly regrettable Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 (the constitutional way to determine who won a presidential election is to stop counting the votes!) to the shockingly unrealistic Citizens United decision (Congress is constitutionally barred from placing reasonable limits on campaign contributions!) earlier this year. So, it came as little more than rueful surprise to see the court rule 5-4 Wednesday that a Christian religious cross erected on national parkland as a war memorial in California's Mojave Desert did not violate the First Amendment, as the New York Times reported. It wasn't just that the cross itself was on public land, or that the government had tried to relieve itself of responsibility by selling the tiny bit of land under the Sunrise Rock cross to a veterans' group, but that U.S. officials refused to allow representatives of other religions to place their own memorials there! The First Amendment's prohibition on laws "respecting an establishment of religion" has come to bar the United States from favoring any religions over others. It is a tribute to the soundness of this reasoning that such disputes rarely reach the high court, even with the loud and often overbearing religious leaders that populate the country. Yet favoring is clearly what the government did at Sunrise Rock. "The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court majority. "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." But in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, the only war veteran on the court, said "I certainly agree that the nation should memorialize the service of those who fought and died in World War I, but it cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message." The case is entitled Salazar v. Buono, No. 08-472.