The Cross is (Still) Secular (Except When it Isn’t)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 6, 2011 — 40 Comments

I continue to be amazed at the argument that the Christian cross, the primary symbol of Christianity across the globe, can also be a “secular” symbol that “honors” dead people who aren’t Christian. It seems so clear-cut an issue to anyone who isn’t Christian. Yet, seemingly learned Supreme Court judges have made hair-splitting arguments to this effect, discussing context and “message” of various monuments erected for the dead. Recently, another high-profile cross monument, the now-infamous Mt. Soledad cross, was unanimously ruled unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“In no way is this decision meant to undermine the importance of honoring our veterans,” the three judges said in their ruling. “Indeed, there are countless ways that we can and should honor them, but without the imprimatur of state-endorsed religion.”

Turns out the context, history, and message of this particular cross wasn’t so secular.

Michael Aguirre, a former San Diego city attorney who has followed the case closely, said cross supporters will have to counter the court’s analysis that the cross was used historically to promote Christianity. The ruling recounts that the cross was dedicated on Easter Sunday and used for religious gatherings for nearly three decades before it became a war memorial. It said La Jolla has a “well-documented history” of anti-Semitism from the 1920s to around 1970. “This cross marks La Jolla as a Christian community, that’s basically what (the judges are) saying,” said Aguirre, who is now in private practice. “It was a cross for decades in a community with a history of anti-Semitism.”

You’d think that this would be the end of the story, but it isn’t. The case will no doubt be appealed to the Supreme Court, and the court has left wriggle-room for the “modification” of the monument, meaning the cross stays up. Religion reporter Joshunda Sanders notes that it isn’t the only unconstitutional cross that is still standing. The Utah “secular symbols of death,” erected in memorial to fallen highway patrol officers, and ruled unconstitutional this past Summer, are still standing.

“A Denver appeals court has stayed an order that would remove 14 memorial crosses from Utah’s highways intended to honor fallen officers and encourage safe driving. The ruling gives the Utah attorneys general’s office 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the 12-foot-high memorials are unconstitutional.”

So now the fate of these unconstitutional crosses will most likely lay in the hands of the Supreme Court, and after the Mojave Desert cross ruling last year, which opened the door to the “secular cross” argument, many are worried the lines of separation concerning government-endorsed religion will be further blurred.

“…for Christians to celebrate this decision requires a will to allow the government to reject the distinct religious value the cross has traditionally held in Christianity.”

These events will not doubt embolden Christian groups to erect further “secular” crosses in hopes of sparking more legal decisions to establish a “secular cross” legal precedent. But the more Christian groups try to bend the law in their favor, in an attempt to return to a mythical pre-secular era of Christian dominance,  the more they make it possible for other faiths to eventually benefit from their labors. I somehow doubt these cross secularizers are going to stand in our corner when someone tries to erect a Wiccan or Asatru war dead memorial. Nor would anyone try to argue for a “secular” Jewish star of David, or “secular” Muslim crescent (particularly not the latter in our current climate). We’ll all have to wait and see what SCOTUS does, and how it will shape the religious landscape of this country.

Jason Pitzl-Waters