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Crosses on public land: Did Supreme Court leave legal issue in 'shambles'?

The Supreme Court agrees not to take a case on whether memorial crosses on public land in Utah violate the First Amendment. But one justice says the court has left the topic in legal limbo.

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The US Supreme Court on Monday rejected a request to take up two cases examining whether officials in Utah violated the separation of church and state when they authorized the placement of 13 white crosses on public roadsides and other property as memorials to fallen state troopers.

The court's rejection of the case leaves in place a circuit court ruling that would require the removal or dismantling of the crosses.

The cases raised an issue that has sharply divided the high court in recent years: When does the display of a religious symbol on public land violate the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

Utah officials had urged the justices to use the case to identify a new legal framework to decide disputes involving displays on public property featuring crosses, the Ten Commandments, holiday crèches, menorahs, and signs with religious or quasi-religious messages.

Apparently, the only justice willing to take up that project was Clarence Thomas, who issued a 19-page dissent to the high court’s refusal to hear the Utah cross cases.

“Today, the court rejects an opportunity to provide clarity to an establishment clause jurisprudence in shambles,” Justice Thomas wrote.

He said the Supreme Court’s approach to such cases “has confounded the lower courts and rendered the constitutionality of displays of religious imagery on government property anyone’s guess.”

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