Hatred of the Cross and Confusion in the Courts

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul spoke plainly about the difficulty that the cross presents to those who don’t believe: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:18, 23-24).

He might well have added that the cross is the object of hatred to some militant atheists, and incoherent confusion to some federal judges. This can be seen in the latest example of atheistic hostility to Christianity and muddled reasoning by a court faced with a lawsuit challenging the existence of a war memorial.

The memorial in question sits in an intersection in the town of Bladensburg, Maryland. It is a cross, forty feet tall, decorated prominently with the symbol of the American Legion on both sides – a large gold star with the initials “U.S” in the middle. The base is inscribed with the words “valor,” “endurance,” “courage,” and “devotion.” On the base is a large plaque with the names of soldiers who gave their lives in World War I and an inspiring quotation from Woodrow Wilson. An American flag stands nearby. According to the town, the memorial is known as the “Peace Cross”.

A group of Christophobic atheists filed a lawsuit claiming that the memorial violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.  They claimed that they “have faced multiple instances of unwelcome contact with the Cross. Specifically, as residents they have each regularly encountered the Cross while driving in the area, believe the display of the Cross amounts to governmental affiliation with Christianity, are offended by the prominent government display of the Cross, and wish to have no further contact with it.”

Aside from their delicate sensibilities, their legal theory was that the use of the cross somehow signifies that the State of Maryland has endorsed Christianity as a preferred state religion.

The Establishment Clause states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This provision originally bound only the federal government, but the Supreme Court has also held that it applies to all levels of government. The Founders who drafted the Constitution and the public who ratified it knew that they were using a term of art that had a specific legal meaning. They all understood that the Establishment Clause meant that there could be no “established church” — namely, a church that had enjoyed special legal status, that was specifically endorsed by the state, that received unique privileges under the law, that all citizens were either required to belong to or financially support, and failure to do so would result in some kind of legal penalties.  Established churches were the norm in most European countries at that time, so everyone knew well that the Amendment was designed to prevent coercion to belong to the church favored by the government or king.

Anyone who reads the Establishment Clause and considers its original plain meaning would find this an easy case. Having a war memorial in the shape of a cross at a public intersection does nothing to create a state church, it doesn’t endorse any church or Christianity in general, it doesn’t compel anyone to believe any doctrine or participate in any religious practice or worship, and there’s nothing in such a gesture that would coerce anyone into joining or supporting any such church or would penalize anyone for not joining.

Sadly, the Supreme Court’s religion jurisprudence is such a mess that a federal Court of Appeals has ruled that the memorial cross violated the Establishment Clause.  In a similar case a few years ago, Justice Clarence Thomas, commenting on the Supreme Court’s incoherent rulings, said:

Since the inception of the endorsement test, we have learned that a creche displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… Likewise, a menorah displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… A display of the Ten Commandments on government property also violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… Finally, a cross displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause… except when it doesn’t…  Such arbitrariness is the product of an Establishment Clause jurisprudence that does nothing to constrain judicial discretion.

This kind of case, like the Ten Commandment public display cases that frequently crop up, may seem like petty and arcane bits of legal doctrine, but they are highly relevant to a central issue facing us at this time. There is a concerted effort being pursued to purge religion from the public square. Policies and laws are being pursued that effectively disqualify Christians from full participation in business and professions, nominees to public offices are being questioned with great hostility about their faith, and there are serious penalties imposed on churches and private persons who disagree with or refuse to comply with government policies based on their religious beliefs.

This latest demonstration of hostility towards the Cross provides us with a moment of clarity about the stakes that are in play. It also provides is with an opportunity to remind ourselves of the power of the Cross as a symbol of our salvation.

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