ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) A 40-foot-tall (12 meters) cross-shaped war memorial standing on public land in Maryland does not constitute government endorsement of religion, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in a decision that leaves unanswered questions about the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state.
The justices were divided on many of the legal issues but the vote was 7-2 to overturn a lower court ruling that had declared the so-called Peace Cross in Bladensburg unconstitutional in a legal challenge mounted by the American Humanist Association, a group that advocates for secular governance.
The concrete cross was erected in 1925 as a memorial to troops killed in World War One.
The ruling made it clear that a long-standing monument in the shape of a Christian cross on public land was permissible but the justices were divided over whether other types of religious displays and symbols on government property would be allowed.
Those issues are likely to come before the court in future cases.
The challengers had argued that the cross violated the Constitution's so-called Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.
"In the fact of today's decision, we must all pursue new avenues to bolster the First Amendment," said American Humanist Association executive director Roy Speckhardt.
He said the group would seek to "strengthen the wall of separation between church and state, brick by brick." The fractured decision saw two of the court's liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan, joining the five conservatives in finding that the cross was constitutional, but both liberal and conservative members of the nine-member court disagreed on which approach to take.
The court did not endorse a new more permissive test proposed by the American Legion veterans' group, which joined the case in defense of the cross, that religious displays on public land be struck down only if they coerce people into practicing religion.
"This decision simply affirms the historical understanding of the First Amendment and allows government to acknowledge the value and importance of religion," said Michael Carvin, a lawyer for the American Legion veterans' group.
The Trump administration, which filed a brief backing the cross, welcomed the ruling.
"The court's decision today is a win for protecting religious freedom and American historical tradition," said Kelly Laco, a Justice Department spokeswoman.