Those who supported the removal made a point of the fact that, while servicemen and women who fought and died in wars were of several different faiths, there was only a quintessential Christian symbol represented. There was resentment also at what was considered to be transparent abuse of language to argue that these crosses were serving a secular purpose as war memorials.Â
At Mojave National Preserve, an old tactic was used to circumvent the fact that the cross was on public property. One acre of land on which the cross was located was transferred to the VFW as a swap for land elsewhere. In San Diego, at the Easter Cross site on Mount Soledad, 222 square feet of land was transferred to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association by city officials.
This has been challenged by a series of court cases extending over two decades and is still not settled. The latest maneuver, transferring the site to the Defense Department, was signed into law by President George W. Bush. That action has been challenged and appeals have been accepted by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California.
Debates about the propriety of placing religious symbols on public property surface widely across our national landscape. Locally, there have been efforts to place the Ten Commandments in front of the courthouse. A look around our city shows only one church with such a display. Those who prefer a separation of church and state wonder why churches do not display these important symbols on church property.
Nationally, it is too early to predict what the outcome will be. It is known that the land swap tactic is not objectionable to the present solicitor general. Again, though, this approach is regarded as an unacceptable end run around the Establishment Clause to many people and an affront to those who regard the cross as a sacred object. Using slightly different language, the Washington Post called this approach "a ruse to avert a federal court order ..."
In the long run, we, as concerned citizens, must face an important question. Is it really wise to undercut the original wisdom of the founders of our political system to maintain a separation of church and state in order to appease any particular sect, denomination or religion? It should be clear that this appeasement would only lead to more demands for sectarian satisfaction. We are blessed with abundant national tranquility because of the acceptance of the First Amendment. For this we can be most grateful.
A simple, but dependable way to deal with this issue is to ask two questions: What is it -- and -- where is it? If the symbol is clearly recognizable as a religious symbol and is on public property, there is an impermissible constitutional event taking place. Predicting what the Supreme Court will decide is dicey, but the analysts that I have heard so far call for a 5-4 decision to uphold the land-swap approach. This will leave unsettled the church-state issue. This is a reasonable conjecture in view of the fact that the five expected votes are members of a religious organization that does not accept the principle of separation of church and state. Could we realistically expect neutrality with so much at stake?
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.