The court directed a federal judge to look again at Congress' plan to transfer the patch of U.S. land beneath the 7-foot-tall cross made of metal pipe to private ownership.
Federal courts had rejected the land transfer as insufficient to eliminate constitutional concern about a religious symbol on public land – in this case in the Mojave National Preserve.
While the holding Wednesday was narrow, the language of the justices in the majority, and particularly the opinion of Anthony Kennedy, suggested a more permissive view of religious symbols on public land in future cases.
Federal courts currently are weighing at least two other cross cases, a 29-foot cross and war memorial on Mt. Soledad in San Diego and Utah's use of 12-foot-high crosses on roadside memorials honoring fallen highway patrol troopers.
"The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society," wrote Kennedy, who usually is in the court's center on church-state issues.
Speaking of the Christian cross in particular, Kennedy said it is wrong to view it merely as a religious symbol. "Here one Latin cross in the desert 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," he said.
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens agreed that soldiers who died in battle deserve a memorial to their service. But the government "cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message," Stevens said.
The cross has stood on Sunrise Rock in the 1.6 million-acre Mojave preserve since 1934, put there by the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a memorial to World War I dead. It has been covered with plywood for the past several years following the court rulings.
Justice Samuel Alito, part of Wednesday's majority, noted the remoteness of the location. "At least until this litigation, it is likely that the cross was seen by more rattlesnakes than humans," Alito said, although he also pointed out that Easter services have long been held there.
The controversy began when a retired National Park Service employee, Frank Buono, filed a lawsuit complaining about the cross on public land. Federal courts sided with Buono and ordered the cross' removal.
In 2003, Congress stepped in and transferred the land where the cross stands to private hands to address the court rulings. But the courts said the land transfer was, in effect, an unacceptable end run around the constitutional problem.
In Wednesday's case, six justices wrote separate opinions and none spoke for a majority of the court.
But supporters of the cross memorials were pleased with Kennedy's language, especially because Alito and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would have gone further. Chief Justice John Roberts signed onto Kennedy's opinion.
"We know this is just the beginning. Until that box comes off that veterans' memorial, the veterans consider that a disgrace," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel at the conservative Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, Texas. He wrote a brief for several veterans' groups.
"We hope that some of the statements of Justice Kennedy go to the bigger issue, attacks on any veterans memorial that has any sort of religious imagery," Shackelford said.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the court's reasoning "bogus."
"It's alarming that the high court continues to undermine the separation of church and state. Nothing good can come from this trend," Lynn said. "The court majority seems to think the cross is not always a Christian symbol. I think all Americans know better than that."
Muslim and Jewish war veteran groups complained in court papers that they view the Mojave cross as a religious symbol that excludes them. The Jewish War Veterans called the cross "a powerful Christian symbol" and "not a symbol of any other religion."
Stevens largely agreed. He called the Mojave cross a "dramatically inadequate and inappropriate tribute." Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor joined his opinion, while Justice Stephen Breyer also dissented.