No Secular Christian Crosses in Utah

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 19, 2010 — 3 Comments

Is the Christian Cross a “secular symbol of death”? That was the assertion of U.S. District Judge David Sam back in 2007 regarding a series of metal crosses along the Utah highway to honor state highway patrol officers who died in the line of duty. This ruling was appealed in 2008, with support from Americans United, the Hindu American Foundation, The Interfaith Alliance, the Union for Reform Judaism, and others. Officials contended that since the cross is secular, not religious, it would being used regardless of the personal religious persuasion of the fallen officer. So atheist, Mormon, Pagan, Jewish or Hindu cops would all get the giant “non-religious” cross as a memorial. However, yesterday, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that these crosses were not “secular” and were in fact, as they have always been, symbols of the Christian faith.

“We hold that these memorials have the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the state prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion,” concluded the Denver, Colorado-based court. The state of Utah and a private trooper association have the option of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not a secular symbol of death.

Not a secular symbol of death.

This ruling is the latest salvo in the ongoing battles over whether a Christian cross on public lands can ever be secular in orientation. The Supreme Court of the United States recently decided that in certain instances, specifically a eight-foot Christian cross WWI memorial situated on public lands in California’s Mojave National Preserve, it could.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, spoke in broad terms. Although the cross is “a Christian symbol,” said Kennedy, it was not placed on sunrise rock in the Mojave Desert to send “a Christian message.” Nor was it placed there to put a government “imprimatur on a particular creed.”

I’ve long argued that neither tradition, popularity, or ubiquity fully erases a religious symbol’s sectarian nature.

“The idea that the cross is “secular” ties into the larger notion that Christian religious expression and tradition, due to its size and ubiquity, is “normal” and ultimately beneficial. The corollary is that non-Christian religious expressions or traditions are “abnormal” and considered suspect. But popularity and tradition doesn’t remove religious context from a religious symbol, instead it subtly reinforces that faith’s dominance and “right” to utter ubiquity. If the cross was truly secular, we wouldn’t have over 40 different emblems of belief for military markers and headstones, nor would minority religions fight to have their own symbols added to that list.

There is no “secular symbol of death”, any more than there is a “secular symbol of life”, because a truly secular culture allows groups and individuals to choose and adapt their own symbols and instill them with meaning. When governments and judges start telling us which religious symbols are “secular”, we enter into a hierarchy of signs, where the faith(s) with the strongest cultural hold gains official sanction in all but name. Undermining the idea that government should make no law“respecting an establishment of religion”.”

More simply, you do not honor a Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or Pagan by erecting a Christian cross in their name, any more than erecting a giant pentacle would honor a fallen Christian.

“The mere fact that the cross is a common symbol used in roadside memorials does not mean it is a secular symbol,” said the panel. “The massive size of the crosses displayed on Utah’s rights-of-way and public property unmistakably conveys a message of endorsement, proselytization, and aggrandizement of religion that is far different from the more humble spirit of small roadside crosses.”

The state of Utah and the Utah Highway Patrol Association are expected to appeal, so we may see how far SCOTUS is willing to go regarding the issue of “secular” crosses on public lands. Considering the fact that Justice Scalia thinks it’s “outrageous” to think that a Christian cross only honors Christian dead, we may see further advancements in efforts to secularize this religious symbol (no matter what the long-term ramifications of that may be).

Jason Pitzl-Waters