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.


  1. There are many things that are Religious in the beginning, that ultimately take a secular definition as well.

    I agree to some extent with Scalia's opinion.

    However, I think intent is important, was the intent meant to force Religion on people? I would say no, it was to honor the dead.

    I think intent is more important.

  2. It's not that strange from a wingnut's point of view (which Scalia is, hands down).

    The wingnut's point of view is "No matter what the truth is, say whatever will get you to your goal."

    Thusly, the cross, understood around the world as a symbol of Christianity, can, for Scalia, take on a secular meaning whenever he needs it to. He wants the cross up there because, for Scalia, there is no more important thing than to make sure that Christianity is displayed as the prominent, dominant religion.

    More important than anything, even truth.

    As for Rob's comments, as a law student, I can give two rules of thumb: 1.) Never agree with Scalia, no matter what, :), and 2.) The issue isn't intent, not in a religious freedom case. It's whether the government is promoting or supporting that religion. I'd argue a cross is a big symbol of support, so I'm in favor of taking it down and replacing it with a headstone of some sort.