Supreme Court to Clarify Use of Religious Displays on Public Land

In a potentially explosive case involving the display of a Ku Klux Klan cross on public land, the Supreme Court is expected this term, to clarify the use of religious displays on public property.

The high court last week agreed to hear an appeal stemming from a Columbus, Ohio board’s decision to ban the Ku Klux Klan from sponsoring a cross in a public park in front of the state Capitol while allowing the display of a menorah and a Christmas tree.

Legal experts expect the court to use the case, Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board vs. Pinette, to resolve conflicting lower court rulings on the issue.

Citing the First Amendment, which states that Congress “shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion,” the Supreme Court five years ago banned religious displays in government buildings.

Since then, various lower courts have ruled that religious displays near government buildings or court houses also violate the Constitution. Other courts, however, say that certain displays are legal.

In appealing to the court, the Capitol Square Review Board, an appointed governmental body, with jurisdiction over the park, argued that the cross is the “quintessential symbol of the Christian faith.”

Because the Klan proposed to place the cross near the Capitol, it “involves the state in a violation of the establishment clause,” the board argued.

The cross was put up in the Columbus park in December 1993 and was torn down within 24 hours. It was not placed back there this past year.

Vincent Pinette, grand titan of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, argued that the cross must be allowed in the park because the government can “neither favor some religious expressions over others nor discriminate against unpopular political views in a public forum.”

The KKK also argued that the state must allow free speech in the park and the cross is a form of speech.

The American Jewish Congress filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Supreme Court to take the case.

“Free speech does not extend to a free-standing religious symbol at the seat of government,” said Mark Stern, co-director of the Commission on Law and Social Action of the AJCongress. Stern opposed the display of all religious symbols in the Columbus park.

Chabad-Lubavitch has erected a menorah during Chanukah in the park since the mid-1980s.

The Anti-Defamation League, a staunch opponent of religious symbols in public places, has remained on the sidelines during the legal battles over the KKK’s cross.

ADL remains concerned that since the park is used throughout the year for hundreds of displays, protests and speeches, no one would think that certain displays would imply that the government was endorsing religion.

In fact, ADL participated in a rally last year at the park commemorating the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

ADL regional director Alan Katchen said the group plans soon to revisit its decision not to join the case.

Nathan Lewin, an attorney who has argued in courts nationwide in favor of the public display of menorahs, plans to file a friend-of-the-court brief in this case.

“Of course we’re not supportive of the KKK, but a private cross on public land is of course entitled to constitutional protection,” Lewin said.

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