A lone cross was erected on a remote California mountaintop with the most admirable of intentions – to honor World War I veterans for their bravery and patriotism. Now that cross is the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
In 1934, a private organization built an 8-foot Christian cross on top of a mountain in the Mojave National Preserve (public land in California) to honor World War I vets. In 1999, someone asked the National Park Service for permission to build a stupa, a type of Buddhist memorial, beside the cross. The request was denied, under the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause. This seemed unfair. So in 2001, Frank Buono, a retired employee of the National Park Service objected to the cross, saying that it violated the Establishment Clause.
In the intervening decade, Congress and the courts have engaged in a legal tug of war. Congress passed measures forbidding removal of the cross, designating it as a national memorial and, finally, ordering the land under the cross to be transferred to private hands. Federal courts in California have insisted that the cross may not be displayed. (New York Times reports).
And so, Salazar v. Buono is now before the Supreme Court. The “high court’s decision has the potential to determine the fate of the cross and similar displays across the country as well as to limit who may bring Establishment Clause lawsuits in federal court,” (PEW reports).
The justices had at it:
Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to want to decide the more basic question of whether the cross was unconstitutional in the first place. He had a testy exchange with Eliasberg about whether the symbol could also double as a secular marker for the war dead of all faiths. Scalia said the cross was the “common symbol of the resting place of the dead.”
Eliasberg drew laughter from the courtroom when he responded: “I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew from Kagan that the Mojave cross was the only one of the fewer than 50 national memorials that consists of a lone religious symbol (Washington Post).
Bloggers and op-ed writers weigh in:
This case is part of a disturbing pattern. Like lawsuits seeking to stop the Pledge of Allegiance from being recited each morning in our public schools or to remove “In God We Trust” from our currency, the ACLU’s argument in Salazar v. Buono is based on a misconception of the Constitution—that the government must be hostile to religion…. If the Supreme Court allows this cross to be destroyed, it could presage the destruction of thousands of similar memorials nationwide, inflicting sorrow on millions of Americans, especially veterans and their families (Wall Street Journal).
Religious symbolism of this kind on government land is, by its very nature, exclusionary. Allowing only a cross to stand over the memorial sends a message to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others that their sacrifices, and their family members’ sacrifices, are not appreciated or mourned (New York Times).
Instead of celebrating our heritage and honoring each other’s holidays and traditions, we become petty and worry about the most easily offended among us. Government accommodation of religion is bedrock American history; our tradition of accommodation has given us liberties unparalleled in modern history. The dismantling of our history occurs one memorial at a time; let’s pray the court gets this one right (LA Times).
What should the court do? Rule that the cross be removed and offend the vets and their families? Or, keep the cross and continue to promote Christian Privilege? Maybe they should follow the lead of other memorials and allow various religious symbols to be erected at the site. It’s one more opportunity to celebrate this country’s religious diversity.
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