Washington Sketch: A Cross in the Desert

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Question: If a cross rises in the desert and no one knows about it, does it make a sound?

Answer: Only in Washington.

In 1934, veterans erected a cross on a rock in a remote part of the Mojave Desert on what is now national park land -- and for the next 65 years, pretty much nobody but the odd rattlesnake noticed. But over the past decade, this 6 1/2 -foot-high cross, made from four-inch white metal pipe, has become the subject of no fewer than four acts of Congress, two district court rulings, three appellate court actions -- and Wednesday, arguments before the nine justices of the Supreme Court.

Why did the Supremes take a case about this bit of Christian iconography in, as Chief Justice John Roberts put it, "the middle of nowhere"? Maybe it was to give Justice Antonin Scalia a chance to squabble with the ACLU.

"The cross doesn't honor non-Christians who fought in the war?" the Catholic justice asked with incredulity.

"I believe that's actually correct," said Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union, the son and grandson of Jewish war veterans.

"Where does it say that?" Scalia demanded to know.

"It doesn't say that," Eliasberg admitted, "but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins."

This news enraged Scalia. "The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead," he declared. "What would you have them erect . . . some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half-moon and star?"

"The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians," Eliasberg corrected. "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew."

The audience laughed. "I think that's an outrageous conclusion," Scalia hissed.

Outrageous or otherwise, it was unnecessary for the high court to reach any conclusions. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out -- and as representatives of both sides agreed -- the whole First Amendment problem could be avoided if the government merely took down the cross, transferred the land to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and let the veterans put the cross back up on newly private land.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company