Cross at center of separation of church and state debate

October 23, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

On Oct. 7, the Supreme Court held hearings on a case involving the presence of a 6-foot white cross -- now covered by a plywood box -- on Mojave National Preserve in California. A replacement of the first cross, erected in 1934, was dedicated to the "... Memory of the Dead of all Wars ...." It is the object of considerable controversy about the constitutionality of its placement on federal property.

In all probability, this case will generate heated controversy between those who believe in a clear separation of church and state and those who wish to make religious symbols a more obvious presence in our culture. At stake in this decision is the future of religious imagery at other war memorial sites on public property.

Experience shows that a wide range of tactics will be used to delay legal efforts to remove religious symbols, such as crosses, from public property. A very similar situation, also in California, erupts periodically over what to do about the Mount Soledad Easter Cross in the center of a city park in San Diego. Dedicated in 1952, during the Korean War, the ceremony took place on Easter Sunday during a religious gathering. Yet, in both cases, those who opposed removal argued that the crosses were secular in nature because they were war memorials. What, pray tell, is a secular cross?


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. 

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.

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