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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).

Is your town being sued by Americans United (or the ACLU, or the FFRF) for holding sectarian prayers before meetings that invoke Jesus repeatedly? It looks like inviting a Pagan to the proceedings as a legal fig-leaf may just save the day. The town of Greece in New York has just won what may be a landmark decision in Federal District Court over the issue of public invocations at government meetings.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Siragusa ruled in favor of the town and dismissed the suit. “The Town did not begin having prayer at meetings in order to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief,’” Siragusa wrote. “…The Town’s prayer policy, to the extent that one exists, is to invite clergy from all denominations within the Town, without any guidance or restriction on the content of prayers. The Town will also permit anyone who volunteers to give an invocation, including atheists and members of non-Judeo-Christian religions such as Wicca, and has never denied a request by anyone to deliver a prayer.” The town has invited clergy to the meetings by using a list of churches included in a local newspaper and by accepting requests from anyone else who was interested. There are few houses of worship in Greece that are not Christian.

So how diverse has the town’s opening prayers been? In the original suit, Americans United noted that “over the past decade, all but two of the prayergivers have been Christian.” The “non-Judeo-Christian” religions, specifically Wicca, didn’t come into play until litigation had been already been threatened against the town. Enter Jennifer Zarpentine, a local Wiccan, who provided the first sectarian Pagan invocation to the Town of Greece.

“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ‘so mote it be.’”

Zarpentine would go on to defend Greece’s invocation policy, telling the press that they are “including everybody”. Conservative Christian advocacy organization the Alliance Defence Fund, who represented Greece in these proceedings, are understandably excited by their win.

“America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer. Public officials today should be able to do the same,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster. “Opening public meetings with prayer has always been lawful in America, and the court here affirmed that it still is today.” “As the court itself concluded, invocation policies like the Town of Greece’s are constitutional,” Oster explained. “In fact, the court specifically pointed out that government attempts to mandate watered-down prayers that don’t mention a specific deity, as demanded by Americans United, would violate the First Amendment by placing government in control of the content of prayer. An organization with ‘separation of church and state’ in its name should not advocate for a violation of the Establishment Clause.”

An AU spokesperson said they were “obviously disappointed” by the ruling, but there has been no official statement, nor word on if they plan to appeal the ruling. You can download a PDF of the decision and order, here. The question now is if this twist in the battles over sectarian prayer at government meetings will stand up to legal scrutiny, or if it will be overturned on appeal. In other cases, mere randomness hasn’t been enough, so will towns being served cease-and-desist letters go the extra step of inviting a Pagan to the proceedings? It will also be interesting to see how diverse Greece stays once the legal dust has settled. Will Jennifer Zarpentine be invited back to invoke Apollo and Athena on a semi-regular basis? What do you think? Are sectarian prayers OK if they are suitable diverse?

Top Story: As post-earthquake Haiti continues to make the news, mainstream media continues to explore the unique and complex religious atmosphere of the small Caribbean nation. Specifically, the relationship of Haitian Vodou with Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the growing chorus of voices that have risen up to defend this oft-misunderstood faith. At the religion-focused interview program “Speaking of Faith”, Krista Tippett re-visits her previously run program on Vodou, adding new content from interviewee Patrick Bellegarde-Smith in the wake of the earthquake.

“After the earthquake, we had a moving and illuminating exchange with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and learned that he lost nine members of his extended family in it. We’ve updated our current program with excerpts from this correspondence.”

SOF’s programs are rich explorations of the chosen topic, and have covered minority faiths like Vodou and modern Paganism fairly and fully. I highly recommend downloading/listening to the re-aired “Living Vodou” episode. Sadly, not all ongoing discussions about Vodou are fair or open-minded. Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher tries to spark a discussion of “comparative theology and culture” with the not-at-all leading or offensive title of: “If Haitian vodou isn’t demon worship, what is?”

“But as a Christian, I don’t believe this is merely a psychological phenomenon. I believe that the vodou entities are real — and malevolent. Despite the syncretism with Roman Catholicism vodou tries to accomplish, there is nothing authentically Christian about it, and I too would think that this religion draws spiritual darkness around its followers and their communities. That does not mean that it causes earthquakes, for goodness sake! But I think it’s a mistake to see vodou as benign or positive. Serious question: if what you see on that photo slideshow isn’t demon worship — demons defined as malign spiritual entities — from a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish) point of view, what is?

But don’t misunderstand him! He just wants to explore “the limits of religious tolerance”, but beware, if you are “always” against passing value judgments on faiths you don’t understand, you might be an enabler of Mormon polygamy. He’s so charming, isn’t he? But wait there’s more! He also issues a dire spiritual warning to a Christian family that is raising their adopted Haitian orphans within the Vodou religion.

“I believe these well-intentioned people are playing with fire. Real spiritual fire.”

Yes, according to Dreher, caring Christian parents should obliterate any sign of non-Christian culture from traumatized Haitian orphans. Luckily the Fitzgibbons’ don’t share his rather narrow view of things.

“[Vodou] is interwoven into every bit of a Haitian person’s life,” said Paula Fitzgibbons, a former Lutheran pastor. “I’m at least presenting them with some part of their spiritual heritage. I can offer them enough that they will be familiar with Vodou when they get to the point of making their own choices about spirituality and religion.”

I’d make a guess as to who was actually more Christ-like, but being a unrepentant Pagan, I’ll refrain. You can read more about the Fitzgibbons family at their blog, “Raising Little Spirits”.

In Other News:

Patrick McCollum v. California: Americans United, who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Wiccan chaplain Patrick McCollum, weighs in on the controversial WallBuilders brief that alleges the Religion Clauses should only apply to monotheists.

“Based on phony history, Wallbuilders’ court filing asks the 9th Circuit not to consider Americans United’s viewpoint. It states we don’t cite “true history” but a “revisionist history” since we claim the Founders wanted to extend religious liberty for all. Needless to say, the brief is offensive, disrespectful and essentially advocates that the government should feel free to discriminate against all non-Judeo-Christian religions. But what else can we expect from Wallbuilders? The organization’s founder and president, David Barton, is a well-known Religious Right propagandist who for years has pushed a fundamentalist “Christian nation” view of American history. He claims to be a historian, but he isn’t one. He earned a bachelor’s degree in “Christian Education” from Oral Roberts University and then taught math and science at a fundamentalist Christian school founded by his father. Wallbuilders’ brief, like Barton, is a serious joke. And we hope that the 9th Circuit pays it no mind.”

This story continues to seep into the mainstream press. There is still no response from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation concerning recent developments. For all of my past coverage of this ongoing case, click here.

Religious Discrimination or Misuse of Storage Facilities? The Times-Georgian reports that the Carroll County Board of Commissioners has rejected a conditional-use permit for the owners of a Pagan retreat that would have allowed them to keep using storage buildings as temporary residences.

“Robert Crowe asked the board to approve a conditional-use permit for use of his 33-acre tract as a Dragon Hill Retreat STAR (Sacred Tribe of the Ancient Roots) Grove, allowing it to be used in activities of the Church of the Spiral Tree, an “ecumenical pagan church.” The request itself was made by James and Rita Middleton, both members of the Church of the Spiral Tree. As part of the activities of the church on the property, the permit would allow storage buildings that have been used as temporary residences on the property to remain as such. Crowe said he is Native American and he practices certain pagan rituals that by definition are rooted in an “earth and nature-based religion.” Crowe said the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Board recommended denial of the request on Jan. 26 simply because the proposed church would promote activities and beliefs to which the members of the board were opposed.”

While Crow alleges that “personal prejudices” led to the zoning board recommending against the permit, Commissioner George Chambers says that his vote against the permit appeal had nothing to do with religion.

“I don’t take issue with what anyone else’s beliefs are. The issue is a conditional-use permit on the houses,” Chambers said. “It wasn’t an issue of whether or not I agreed with their beliefs or what they do on the land as part of their church. My issue is not with that because the current zoning allows for that. My issue was with the houses.”

So, religious discrimination, or simply a zoning issue? Why were storage facilities being used as temporary housing? The retreat’s web site says that there are cabins and kitchens, so what’s going on? Is this selective enforcement because they are Pagans? Or was this appeal more a CYA maneuver?

The Pagan Circle at the Air Force Academy: While the newly installed stone circle for Pagan cadets at the Air Force Academy has garnered some anonymous “criticism” recently, it has also faced some vocal lashings from Christians who seemingly don’t believe in the equal treatment of religions within government institutions.

“What we label today as ‘pluralism,’ God called ‘idolatry,'” said Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, in a commentary in The Washington Post. “The first commandment from God was, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’ “To openly violate this most basic law is to invite God’s judgment upon our nation.”

Meanwhile, Bill Donahue, the self-proclaimed advocate for all things Catholic, says that Christians are the real victims in the military (all that pluralism is “chilling” to Christian expression, don’t ya know), and Fox News finds two conservative think-tanks to explain how this incident isn’t really  a big deal.

“It’d be one thing if there was a harmful act, but to have competing symbols, I’m not sure I would put that in the category of destructive behavior,” London continued. “What is being expressed here is the view of the Judeo-Christian as opposed to the pagan tradition.”

You see, it was just a friendly discussion! An exchange of symbols. I’m sure they would agree that a Pagan idol placed within a Christian facility would be equally harmless, just another round in the showcase of competing expressions. You can read all of my stories concerning the Air Force Academy, here.

Skip Having Breakfast With The Family: In a final update, I just wanted to note that while President Obama did indeed attend the Family/Fellowship-sponsored National Prayer Breakfast despite calls for him to boycott, both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the opportunity to indirectly criticize “The Family” and their support of Uganda’s noxious “kill the gays” bill.

“We may disagree about the best way to reform our health care system, but surely we can agree that no one ought to go broke when they get sick in the richest nation on Earth. We can take different approaches to ending inequality, but surely we can agree on the need to lift our children out of ignorance; to lift our neighbors from poverty. We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.”

It must have made for some uncomfortable moments over pancakes. To find out more about “The Family”, and why they are so dangerous, you can read my interview with journalist Jeff Sharlet, here.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

News broke yesterday that U.S. District  Judge Cameron McGowan Currie ruled that South Carolina’s controversial “I Believe” license plate violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

“In finding the sectarian plate unconstitutional, Judge Currie held, “Such a law amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular.” The judge noted that legislators and other state officials have unnecessarily drawn the state into an expensive lawsuit.”


I don’t see why non-Christians would have a problem with this.

This case had been a joint effort of local clergy and Americans United who felt the plate amounted to a state-sponsored endorsement of Christianity. This entire process has also been haunted by the Pagans in South Carolina and their own quest for equal treatment under the law. From the local politicians pushing the plates under the assumption that “any” religion could have their own tags, just so long as those tags weren’t from a Pagan faith, to the fact that the judge on this case also ruled in favor of Wiccan Darla Kaye Wynne during the Great Falls invocation saga. Our presence played a small part in reminding politicians, judges, lawyers, and journalists that  minority religions exist everywhere, even in the “Christian” South. That a Christian cross emblazoned on these plates sent a message of exclusion, not inclusion.

Of course the saga of Christian license plates is hardly over, the state of South Carolina could try to appeal the decision, and other states, most notably Florida, are engaging in the same shenanigans. But at least a message was sent today that America is not merely a “Christian” nation, but a nation of many religions, or of no religion at all, and you can’t raise one up in the government without pushing the others down in some fashion.

Way back in March of 2008 the town of Greece, New York had a problem. Americans United had decided to bring litigation against the Town Board for a policy of starting their meetings almost exclusively with sectarian Christian prayers. Hoping to avoid losing a lawsuit, the Town Board threw open their doors to any religion that wanted to give an opening prayer, even if they were Pagans.

“[Greece deputy town supervisor Jeff] McCann said the town has long used a list of worship services published in a local newspaper to extend invitations to local clergy for the meetings. The list offers little diversity, he said, and the town has had difficulty locating people from nontraditional faiths who may not have a physical church building they attend. “Now that the issue has gotten some publicity, we’ve had people call up and say they have an interest in delivering a prayer,” he said, adding that nonclergy, the nonreligious and anyone else who wishes to speak the pre-meeting prayer is welcome. “If a private person wants to come and say a prayer, they can come and do it.” Indeed, he said, next month’s Wiccan prayer was initiated by local resident Jennifer Zarpentine, who called town offices to ask whether she would be welcome at a meeting.”

So local resident Jennifer Zarpentine did indeed give an opening invocation in Greece, making her re-think the issue of sectarian prayers now that she was included.

“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ’so mote it be … Zarpentine said she was pleased by the opportunity to pray at the meeting. ‘I thought the invocation went well,’ she said. ‘The board was respectful;, they all bowed their heads.’ As far as the lawsuit goes, Zarpentine said the town isn’t being discriminatory. ‘They are including everybody,’ she said. ‘They asked me.’

Americans United were, naturally, unmoved by the town of Greece’s recent inclusiveness, so litigation moved forward. This past Thursday Americans United and the town of Greece (represented by the right-wing Alliance Defence Fund) gave their arguments to a judge and are now awaiting a summary judgement in about six weeks.

“In the hour-long hearing, Richard R. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United, argued that the plaintiff is concerned not with prayer before the meetings but with sectarian prayers that have dominated the practice since Auberger started it in 1999. According to court papers, of 104 prayers from 1999 through 2007, none were non-Christian. Since the lawsuit was filed, the majority of the prayers have been Christian, with one being delivered by a Wiccan priestess and two others by non-clergy. Katskee stressed that the plaintiff is not against Christian prayer, but that the prayers have been aimed at one sect … Joel Oster, a senior litigation counsel for Colorado-based Alliance Defense Fund that is representing Greece, said that it is not right to ask the town to police the clergy. “It is not the town’s place to tell the clergy what to say,” Oster said. “It would cause a nightmare for the town.” Auberger has said that the town’s practice is to have an open invitation to any Greece resident to contact the town about giving the prayer.”

So now we’ll find out if a legal fig-leaf in the form of a single sectarian Wiccan prayer (amidst a hundred Christian prayers to Jesus) can aid this New York town and their socially conservative legal team overcome the AU and some pretty strong legal precedents in their favor. Will Greece’s “include a Wiccan” gambit work? Or will they be forced to switch to non-sectarian prayers? In about six weeks we get to find out.

Jacob Davis, a Wiccan student at Southeastern Local Schools in Ohio, challenged the traditional Christian clergy-led prayer at his school’s graduation ceremony, saying he’d prefer a moment of silence instead.

“Traditionally, the school has had a reverend deliver an invocation and benediction at the ceremony, but the practice recently was challenged by senior Jacob Davis. Davis, who raised his concerns in a Letter to the Editor at the Chillicothe Gazette, had conducted a petition of classmates for a moment of silence instead, gathering about 44 signatures. Principal Leonard Steyer was prepared to make a decision about the prayer Friday when he received a copy of a letter faxed to the district Thursday by a staff attorney for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State … Davis, a practicing Wiccan, said he is uncomfortable being asked to participate in a Christian prayer at his graduation, and contends the tradition violates separation of church and state provisions. “I think the best thing to do is have no other prayer,” Davis said … Davis indicated a student-led prayer wouldn’t bother him (even though he wouldn’t partake) because the student would be exercising his or her right to free speech.”

Davis was supported by the Lady Libery League and Americans United in his request, and it looks like his efforts were successful because Superintendent Brian Justice announced yesterday that no clergyperson will give an invocation or benediction.

“Southeastern High School graduates will not have a clergyperson delivering an invocation and benediction at their ceremony. Superintendent Brian Justice explained Wednesday he and the board are not anti-prayer, but are obliged to follow the law. “We will not violate the laws … (I and) my board of education believe in prayer, but we’re not for violating the law. Are we happy about it? No,” Justice said. Issues over the school’s tradition were raised by senior Jacob Davis, a practicing Wiccan, who felt the prayer violated the law and provisions for the separation of church and state. Davis issued his concerns through a letter to the editor to the Chillicothe Gazetteabout two weeks ago before speaking with administrators, Justice said.”

This most likely won’t eliminate prayer at the ceremony, no doubt one of the student speakers will decide to invoke Jesus or God during their time on-stage, but Davis has managed to remove school-sponsored public (Christian) prayer. Further, Davis has proven that only by speaking out and risking criticism and mockery (and I can only imagine some of the hate-mail Davis will be receiving in the weeks to come) can you effect the change you want to see in the world. Before now no one bothered to do anything about the school-sponsored clergy-led invocations and benedictions, it was considered a “tradition” and one that even non-Christian students probably didn’t give much thought to. But thanks to Davis the lulling refrain of “this is how we’ve always done it” has been challenged and the assumption of Christian adherence removed from the school’s functions. Speaking out may not always get you what you want right away, but sometimes merely speaking out (and a faxed letter from Americans United) does work.

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.

Yesterday U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie issued a preliminary injunction halting the issuing of the Christianity-endorsing “I Believe” license plates in South Carolina. The matter will now have to be resolved in court before the plates can adorn the cars of Christian believers. The move was hailed by Americans United head the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, whose organization is sponsoring the pending litigation.


I don’t see why non-Christians would have a problem with this.

“‘The ‘I Believe’ license plate is a clear example of government favoritism toward one religion,’ said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. ‘The court drove home an important point: South Carolina officials have no business meddling in religious matters.’ … Americans United brought the Summers v. Adams legal challenge on behalf of four local clergy the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones as well as the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.”

Supporters of the cross-emblazoned plates have argued that they are legal since any religious group can sponsor similarly biased tags, an argument that quickly falls apart when you speak to local officials about what exactly counts as a religion.

“In South Carolina, Baptists wanted the tag on cars here and pitched the idea to Republican South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer’s chief of staff. State Sen. Yancey McGill, a Kingstree Democrat, got the bill passed in a couple of days without even having a public hearing or debate. “It’s a great idea,” McGill said Tuesday, calling it an opportunity to express beliefs. “People don’t have to buy them. But it affords them that opportunity. I welcome any religion tags.” What about Wicca, commonly referred to as witchcraft? “Well, that’s not what I consider to be a religion,” McGill said.”

That sentiment doesn’t just apply to Wiccans of course, Muslims are right out too.

“Asked by a reporter if he would support a license plate for Islam, Rep. Bill Sandifer replied, ‘Absolutely and positively no… I would not because of my personal belief, and because I believe that wouldn’t be the wish of the majority of the constituency in this house district.'”

Judge Cameron McGowan Currie, who is expected to release a written opinion concerning the injunction on Monday, is no stranger to protecting the rights of minority religions. In 2003 the judge ruled in favor of Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan, who was battling against exclusively Christian invocations in the town of Great Falls. There is no word if Currie will also be overseeing the actual trial (though we can all hope). Whomever presides, this case will most likely be litigated for quite some time. South Carolina has become a “hot zone” for battles over church and state issues, and things are just getting warmed up.

On his syndicated radio program Culture Shocks, Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, examines the law banning fortune telling in Montgomery County, Maryland.

“Is an anti-fortune telling rule discriminatory or protective? Pagan witch and shamanic healer, Caroline Kenner joins us…”

Lynn interviews local Pagan activist and organizer Caroline Kenner, and “dirt worshiper” and diviner Diotima Mantineia about the law and its arbitrarily discriminatory nature. They also discuss the current lawsuit against the law brought by Nick Nefedro, who claims the law violates his rights.

“A fortuneteller is suing Montgomery County after he learned he would not be allowed to open a shop in Bethesda because the county bans the business of forecasting the future. Attorneys for Nick Nefedro, previously of Key West, Fla., say county officials violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and discriminated against his “Roma,” or Gypsy, culture when they refused to give him a business license.”

You can listen to the program online, here, or download the entire program. Lynn seems very interested in this case, and promises to write about it at length over at his new blog at Beliefnet. Something tells me we aren’t so far away from some planned civil disobedience and Americans United getting into the legal fray.

Is the Christian cross a secular symbol? That is the current opinion of Utah state officials and U.S. District Judge David Sam. This peculiar notion was reached in 2007, after local atheists challenged the placement of metal crosses along the highway to honor state highway patrol officers who died in the line of duty. Now American’s United, along with the Anti-Defamation League, the Hindu American Foundation, The Interfaith Alliance, and the Union for Reform Judaism, are challenging this ruling.

Not a secular symbol of death.

Not a secular symbol of death.

“U.S. District Judge David Sam ruled in November of 2007 that the cross is a “secular symbol of death” and held that Utah officials and the Utah Highway Patrol Association can continue to erect the 12-foot crosses. Americans United is asking the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the lower court ruling. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said he is offended by the claim that the cross is merely a secular symbol. “The cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity,” said Lynn … In its brief, AU points out that the cross has been tied to Christianity for many centuries. “In upholding the display of roadside crosses on public land throughout the State of Utah, the district court embraced the State’s characterization of the cross the clearest and most universally recognized marker of Christianity as nothing more than a ‘secular symbol of death,’” asserts the brief. ‘This conclusion is historically inaccurate, blind to contemporary realities, and offensive to believers and nonbelievers alike.'”

Officials contend that the cross is secular, not religious, and it is 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.

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 39 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”.