The Bladensburg cross. Source: The Humanist.

In a widely-anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled late last month that a large concrete cross located on public property at a major intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland, could remain in place.  The nearly 90-year-old cross, which was placed to honor victims of World War I, had been challenged by an atheist organization as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishment of religion.

In a fractured decision, seven of the Justices agreed that the cross could stay.  Writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice Alito argued that, although the Latin cross has a religious meaning, its longtime placement at a major intersection as a war memorial meant that it had taken on a secular meaning as well.  In light of this longstanding history, he concluded that the cross was not a violation of religious liberty.  In rendering his opinion, Justice Alito eschewed use of the widely-criticized Lemon test, developed by the Supreme Court in 1971, which looks at the government’s purpose and the effect of a regulation to determine whether an unconstitutional establishment of religion is created.  Justices Breyer and Kagan concurred in the opinion, noting that each Establishment Clause case must be reviewed individually and observing that no particular judicial test works in every situation.
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Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop. Source: Reuters.

While the Rocky Mountain Sign Blog is geared toward issues that involve free speech and land use law, we geek out about any Supreme Court case that addresses First Amendment issues, even those outside of our weird little land use world.  Yesterday, our appetite

This post was authored by Otten Johnson summer law clerk David Brewster.  David is a rising third-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two opinions addressing separate free speech issues.  While neither decision related specifically to local government regulations, both hold some important lessons for local government practice, as we outline below.

In Packingham v. North Carolina, the Court struck down a North Carolina law making it a felony for registered sex offenders “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.”  Gerard Packingham, having previously been convicted of “taking indecent liberties with a child,” was cited for violating the law when he posted a statement on his Facebook page about a “positive experience in traffic court.”

At trial, Packingham filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the charge violated his First Amendment free speech rights.  The trial court denied Packingham’s motion, and he was subsequently convicted.  Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina struck down the law on First Amendment grounds, explaining that “the law is not narrowly tailored to serve the State’s legitimate interest in protecting minors from sexual abuse.”  The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, holding the law constitutional “in all respects,” and explaining that the law was carefully tailored to prevent sex offenders from accessing “only those Web sites that allow them the opportunity to gather information about minors.”
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