In a ruling that seems to help those who want to keep the Mt. Soledad cross right where it is, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of a land swap aimed at protecting a memorial cross on public land in the Mojave Desert.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court sided with the U.S. Interior Department and Congress, which came up with a deal that allowed the transfer of one acre of property where the Mojave Desert cross sits. That acre is now private property, meaning the cross no longer raises constitutional issues regarding whether religious symbols can be placed on public property.

The Mt. Soledad legal saga, which has been tying up courtrooms for more than two decades, revolves around a similar issue: Did the city of San Diego violate the Constitution by trying to save the cross and getting rid of the city-owned land beneath it? And did the federal government violate the law by taking the land by eminent domain in 2006?

With the help of Congress, the federal government took over the land in order to preserve the Mt. Soledad cross as a war memorial. This is a somewhat different situation than in the Mojave Desert case, in which the government actually got rid of the land under that cross.

In the Supreme Court ruling regarding the Mojave Desert cross, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that the federal statute allowing the land swap is constitutional and not an “evasion” of the law. (The 75-year-old cross, which is about five feet tall, sits in San Bernardino County near the state border with Nevada.)

But the ruling, as the Washington Post puts it, is murky: “It did not provide a clear rule for the future — or even explicitly say that the cross could remain in place.”

In fact, the majority opinion specifically says it’s not setting precedent: “To date, the court’s jurisprudence in this area has refrained from making sweeping pronouncements, and this case is ill suited for announcing categorical rules.”

However, the opinion does seem to support memorial crosses on public land. The Mojave Desert cross, it says, “is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs.”

The opinion went on to say this: “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.”

That could be a crucial point if the Mt. Soledad case ever reaches the Supreme Court. Proponents of the cross say it’s a memorial symbol, not just a Christian one.

In 2008, a federal judge declined to reverse the federal takeover of the land underneath the Mt. Soledad cross. The ACLU is appealing the ruling to a federal circuit court.

When I talked to a local ACLU representative last fall, he said the government wrongdoing in the Mt. Soledad case is “more clear” than in the Mojave Desert case because the feds still own the land under the Soledad cross.

The 43-foot-high Mt. Soledad Cross, which is visible for miles, sits atop a hill in La Jolla and was placed there in 1954 as a war memorial.

Here’s a PDF of the Supreme Court ruling.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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