One of the more peculiar legal arguments I’ve heard is that the history of cultural Christian dominance in America makes public displays of the cross effectively “secular” and therefore exempt from Church-State concerns.That was the opinion of a judge in Utah last year concerning memorial road markers (currently being appealed), and it has emerged again over the issue of the Mt. Soledad cross in San Diego.
Litigation over the 43-foot-tall Mt. Soledad cross has been under way for nearly 20 years. Several federal courts have ruled against its display on city property. In an effort to save the cross, the federal government acquired the land underneath the cross in 2006. Legal action proceeded against the federal government’s ownership of the towering religious symbol. In July of 2008, U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns ruled that the cross “communicates the primarily non-religious messages of military service, death and sacrifice” and can remain on public property.
Unsurprisingly, Americans United (along with other groups) have asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn this decision. They claim, sensibly enough, that a multi-religious military and nation cannot be symbolized by a Christian cross.
“American service personnel come from many different faiths and some follow no spiritual path at all,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It is disrespectful to our deceased veterans to use the symbol of only one faith to memorialize them all” … “That the cross is used in a veterans’ memorial here does not make it secular,” asserts the brief. “In fact, as a burial marker, the cross has been used almost exclusively for Christian burials in order to convey a sectarian message that the deceased lived and died as a member of a particular Christian community. And as a monument in a veterans’ memorial, the cross conveys a similar sectarian message: that only fallen Christian soldiers are being remembered. Given the ‘commanding presence’ of the Mt. Soledad cross in relation to the rest of the memorial, the primary message that this cross communicates is religious, not secular.”
Even if every body buried in that site were Christian (leaving aside the various doctrinal and denominational issues), do Christians really want their cross to become a secular communicator of “non-religious messages”? Further, this “secularization” is a rather recent invention. Until 1989 (when litigation started) it was known as the “Easter Cross” and it was dedicated to “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”, which seems to undermine the notion that this is everyone’s non-religious cross-shaped memorial. The “secular” cross is just the latest gambit to circumvent state and federal law. It no more represents and honors Jews, Hindus, Muslims and atheists than the Wiccan pentacle does. To say otherwise undermines the hard work minority religions have undertaken to have their own symbols and traditions properly honored and recognized.