Friday, October 9, 2009

On A Hill Far Away Stood A Secular Cross

I've been following the recent Salazar v. Buono court case for a while. For those of you who don't tag along with significant faith-related court cases, this one involves a cross erected on federal land to honor WWII dead.

It's an interesting and convoluted case, in which Congress got heavily involved writing legislation to specifically prevent the removal of the cross. Oral arguments in this case were heard at the Supreme Court this last Wednesday, and the case itself will be decided over the next few months.

One of the most striking and peculiar exchanges this Wednesday came between Justice Antonin Scalia and a lawyer representing the ACLU. Scalia, who is easily the most fiery and entertaining member of the court, was putting forth the conservative case for retaining the cross on public land. The ACLU attorney was putting forth the presumably progressive case for it's removal.

There are some matters of federal jurisdiction at play here, but what to me was most fascinating was the exchange between Scalia and the ACLU around the nature of the cross. Scalia, the court's most vociferous conservative, made the case that the cross was a generic religious symbol, one that universally honors all peoples and religions. He also described it as "..the most common symbol for the resting place of the dead."

The representative of the ACLU described the cross in this way: " ..a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins."

I have two responses to this odd exchange.

First, one wonders if Scalia has ever paid a visit to Arlington Memorial Cemetery to honor our war dead. I'm a DC townie, and I've taken more than one long, slow walk through those solemn fields. The markers there are simple white headstones. On most, there are crosses. On some there are Stars of David. On others, the Star and Crescent.

To my knowledge, there are no Flying Spaghetti Monsters yet. This is not because atheists haven't given their lives for this country, but just because it sorta stops being funny at that point. However you slice it, the cross is not, not, NOT a generic grave marker.

Second, it's amazingly odd to have a progressive liberal making a fundamentally orthodox statement about the actual nature and purpose of the cross, and to have an ultraconservative claiming that the cross should be thought of as devoid of specific meaning, and unrelated to Christ.

Strange, strange times.