Given the contentiousness of the debate over the proper role of religion in American public life, you'd think an important Supreme Court ruling on the issue would be a big story to the network news. But the Court's April 28 finding regarding a cross on a World War I memorial in the Mojave Desert elicited a yawn from CBS's “Evening News,” a 78-word report from NBC's “Nightly News,” and a one-sided segment from ABC's “World News with Diane Sawyer” that fretted if the Court “move[d] the bar on the separation of church and state.”
The cross in question is part of a memorial built in 1934 in the federal-owned Mojave National Preserve to honor fallen WWI veterans. Lower courts ruled the cross unconstitutional and had it covered with a box, despite efforts taken in recent years by Congress to avoid constitutional questions over it by transferring that portion of the Preserve to private owners.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled this was not a clear-cut violation of the separation of church and state.
“The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion. Kennedy noted specifically about this cross that it “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.”
ABC's Terry Moran examined the ruling in an April 28 “World News” segment and focused only on the “dismayed” reactions of those opposed to the cross. Neither soundbite in the segment came from anybody who was happy with the ruling.
Frank Buono, the former National Park Service employee who first raised the question about the cross told ABC, “It's a symbol of death and sacrifice only in the extent that it symbolizes the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I mean, this is as religious as it gets.”
Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the ruling “an example of a bad trend” and accused the Supreme Court of not caring about “religious minorities and non-believers.”
Moran pointed out that the Supreme Court “ruling sends the case back down to lower courts,” but failed to note that the ruling doesn't allow the cross to be uncovered. He also did not note that the issue of religious symbols on war memorials is still not completely settled.
“We've got to go back down to the district court and still get a ruling taking this box off. And then additionally, the issue is still open as to whether veterans' memorials that have religious imagery should be left alone or whether the ACLU can continue to file these kinds of attacks,” he explained.