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Conflict over the Mojave cross

A possible compromise. Comments on the
cross & lawsuit by individuals and groups

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A possible compromise:

Rather than removing the cross, the display could easily be expanded to include:
bulletA Jewish Star of David to honor Jewish veterans,
bulletOther symbols from other world religions to recognize veterans of other religions,
bulletVarious secular symbols to honor non-religious, Agnostic, Atheist, Humanist veterans, etc.

Then it would become a cultural display, and be accepted by the courts as constitutional. It would also then be more representative of the full diversity of World War I veterans, whether they followed Christianity, another religion, or no religion. 1

Unfortunately, if this approach were taken, then Christianity would not be the only faith represented at the memorial. Some people who strongly believe that the U.S. is a Judeo-Christian country and was founded as a Christian country. They would find this solution unacceptable.

Comments on the cross and lawsuit by various individuals and groups:

There have been 19 amica curiae briefs filed in support of the petitioner and in support of the preservation of the cross. Eleven briefs have been filed in support of the respondent and the removal of the cross. 2

The case has been well covered in the media.

bulletThe Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a fundamentalist Christian group promoting freedom of religious expression. They filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the preservation of the Mojave cross. Eric Rassbach, their national litigation director, said:  "If the Supreme Court strikes down this memorial, tens of thousands of memorials around the country stand at risk." 3
bulletIn response, Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said that this would be true only if the memorials are also government-sanctioned religious symbols that violate the Constitution and falsely claim to represent all of our country's veterans. He said:

"The cross is a powerful symbol of the Christian faith. It does not represent all Americans who have died protecting our country. It does not represent the 29% of our current service members in the military who are not Christian." 3

We are unable to determine precisely to which memorials Rassbach is referring. He couldn't be referring to religious symbols on individual veteran's gravestones because those symbols are considered religious speech and are protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. He could not refer to those veterans' cemeteries owned by non-profit groups; the establishment clause would not apply to them, because the cemeteries are not government-owned.

During the oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ginsberg asked whether "... there any other national memorial that consists of a solitary cross, just that one symbol and no other?" U.S. Solicitor General Elana Kagan, representing the petitioners who favor preservation of the cross, responded:

"I don't believe that there is, Justice Ginsburg. There are national memorials that have some religious content to them. There is, for example, a statue of a Catholic priest holding a very large cross, but most national memorials are -- are not religious. Some are." 4

bulletThe Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, The American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of California, and the American Ex-prisoners of War filed a joint brief with the Court of Appeals. It argued that:

 
bullet"A cross is a common symbol honoring the courage and sacrifice of veterans..."
 
bullet"Religious imagery such as a cross is deeply entrenched in American military culture"
 
bulletTo remove the cross after 75 years is "an unreasonably hostile decision contrary to the requirements of the Establishment Clause."
 
bulletIf the court order the removal of the cross, countless veteran's memorials would be effected. 5

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bulletSome veterans' groups have also filed friend-of-the-court briefs asking the Supreme Court to order removal of the cross. They included: the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Councils, the Muslim American Veterans Association and the Jewish War Veterans of the United States. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) also opposes the cross at that location, but joined with the brief prepared by Americans United.

Col. David Antoon is a member of the MRFF. He spent 25 years on active duty in the Air Force, He feels that the government's endorsement of the Christian symbol excludes non-Christian service members. He said that it is not only divisive, but is another example of how sectarian religion is becoming:

"... part of the fabric of the military. ... The military should be totally blind to religious faith. This really is destroying the diversity in our military -- the diversity that makes this country great."

bulletThe New York Times published an editorial, saying in part:

"The Supreme Court will first consider whether Mr. Buono has standing to challenge the cross. The cross's supporters argue that he has not really been injured and, therefore, should not be able to sue. But as someone who was in contact with the cross and was offended by its presence, he was injured. More precisely, though, in this case, Mr. Buono has won a court injunction against the cross, and Congress's land transfer interferes with his injunction. He has a right to challenge the transfer."

"On the merits, the appeals court was right that the cross must come down. By allowing a Christian cross, and not symbols of other faiths, on federal land, the government was favoring one religion over others. Also, Congress has designated the cross as a national memorial, which means that it continues to have official government endorsement."

"The land transfer was mere window-dressing. Bypassing normal procedures for disposing of government land, Congress gave the land to an entity it understood would keep up the cross, and it provided that the land would be returned if it was not used as a memorial."

"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."

"It also sends a message that state and church are intertwined. A single cross does not, by itself, mean America has an established religion, but if the Supreme Court stops caring that the government is promoting a particular religion, we will be down the path toward having one." 6

The New York Times is wrong. There is no reason why "... the cross must come down." There remain two additional alternatives:

bulletUnbolt the cross from its rock anchor, transport it to a piece of private land, and re-erect it.

bulletLeave the cross where it is and augment it with symbols from other religions and from secular philosophies. This would convert the memorial into a cultural display that represents the religious and secular beliefs of all combatants, not just some. This would convert a divisive symbol that recognized only about 70% of the combatants and denigrated the status of the remaining 30% into a unifying symbol representing all of the combatants.
 

bulletThe Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Interfaith Alliance filed an amicus curia brief that supported Buono's right to launch the lawsuit. It said, in part:

"Seeing one's faith receive preferential government treatment, while aware that no minority faith would receive that treatment, demonstrates the government's perversion of religion for its own ends. The government is taking something that should be a symbol of voluntary religious belief and practice and using it in a way that alters its apparent symbolism by making it look like an 'official' faith."

"It is not surprising that devout, voluntary adherents of a religion would not want to send the signal to those who do not share in the religion of the majority that they are political outsiders. Where the government endorses one religion over all others, it weakens the sanctity of that religion and its beliefs." 7

The story continues...

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. John Welsh, "Ruling may mean end of Mojave cross: LAWSUIT: The ACLU convinces a judge that a religious symbol has no place on public land," The Press-Enterprise at: http://www.pe.com/
  2. "Salazar v. Buono: Briefs and Document," ScotusWiki, at: http://www.scotuswiki.com/
  3. Sandhya Bathija, "Religious Right Groups Are Trying To Rein In Citizens? Right To Challenge Government-Sponsored Religious Symbols," Americans United, 2009-SEP, at: http://www.au.org/
  4. A transcript of the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on 2009-OCT-07 is available at: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/ This is a PDF file.
  5. On Petition for a Writ of Certiorari..." Filed 2008-NOV-10, at: http://www.scotusblog.com
  6. "The Constitution and the Cross," Editorial, The New York Times, 2009-OCT-06, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  7. Robert Marus, "Supreme Court gets technical in arguments on Mojave cross," Associated Baptist Press, at: http://www.abpnews.com/

Copyright © 2001 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-OCT-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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