Last week the US Supreme Court ruled that a transfer of land, holding a cross erected in the Mojave National Preserve in California then sold to a private group after a lower court ruled that the cross violated the 1st amendment, needed to be reassessed in light of their holding that a Latin cross is a generic symbol of war dead. The ruling opens a can of worms that neither believers or non-believers might enjoy.
On April 28th, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Salazar v. Buono that a lower court ruling on a law enacted by Congress to transfer 1 acre of land under a Latin cross to a private group should be reconsidered.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority:
“A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies would be compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”
When the case was heard back in October 2009, the following exchange took place:
Peter J. Eliasberg, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said many Jewish war veterans would not want to be honored by “the predominant symbol of Christianity,” one that “signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins.”
Justice Antonin Scalia responded that the symbol in the context of a war memorial carried a more general meaning. “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead,” he said.
Mr. Eliasberg said, “There is never a cross on the tombstone of a Jew.”
Justice Scalia, who is usually jovial even in disagreement, turned angry. “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that the cross honors are the Christian war dead,” he said. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.”
So basically the court set aside the lower court ruling, that the land transfer was an attempt to evade the 1st amendment issue, because the Latin cross was a generic war memorial.
Kennedy wrote again:
“It could not maintain the cross without violating the injunction,” he wrote, “but it could not remove the cross without conveying disrespect for those the cross was seen as honoring.”
He added, “The land transfer-statute embodies Congress’s legislative judgment that this dispute is best resolved through a framework and policy of accommodation for a symbol that, while challenged under the Establishment Clause has complex meaning beyond the expression of religious views.”
This illustrates how Christian privilege can blind a person into a bad decision. The majority of the court assumed that the cross was a secular symbol of war dead and not the sectarian symbol everyone else sees. The Latin cross simply does NOT include everyone.
Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent:
“Making a plain, unadorned Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular,” he added. “It makes the war memorial sectarian.”
Making the cross secular also bothers some religious folks:
“I think that most American evangelicals would acknowledge that it probably is, in our culture, more than a Christian symbol,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
That’s fine, he said, “as long as it’s not less than a Christian symbol.”
Land said he’d rather have the cross stay up under Kennedy’s line of argument than have authorities eradicate crosses from cemeteries.
When a Supreme Court justice says the cross is not just about Christianity, it diminishes Jesus’ charge to his followers to “take up their cross and follow me,” said Read Churchyard, an expert on symbolism and iconography at Wheaton College in Illinois.
The fact is that the court rulings on crosses isn’t an attempt to “have authorities eradicate crosses from cemeteries”. It is to protect the 1st amendment and keep the government from favoring a particular sect when building a memorial to a group of people like war veterans. No one has ever complained about what individual families use to mark their dead in a public cemetery.
Ignoring the fact that not all people are Christian is as disrespectful as erecting a Nativity scene on the lawn of City Hall during holiday season.