A cross to bear

Does a cross erected on federal lands in California during the 1930s to honor those killed in World War I and the “dead from all wars” amount to a governmental endorsement of Christianity?  That’s the question before the U.S. Supreme Court this term that presents an opportunity for the court to finally clarify a history of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that appears muddled.

In the case currently before the court, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the cross amounts to an unconstitutional favoring of one religion over others and a judge ordered the cross covered with plywood until a final ruling is handed down.

Congress tried to finagle a legal way to let the cross remain by trading the one-acre site on which it is located for some land in the region owned by the non-governmental Veterans of Foreign Wars. Opponents of the cross display said the swap was nothing more than a contrivance to kick leaves over what was a clear constitutional violation.

The court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, (which provides “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) has appeared far from consistent, particularly in connection with religious displays.

In the last 25 years, the court has permitted a display of the Ten Commandments at the Texas state capitol due to the monument’s “secular purpose.” But it also struck down crèche displays and other monuments to the Ten Commandments on state property because they were not clearly integrated with a secular display.

We remain befuddled by what appears to be an unpredictable, fact-specific interpretation of the Establishment Clause by the Supreme Court. But perhaps that’s precisely what the framers intended. Perhaps they wanted to force us to think through these sticky questions each time they present themselves.

Has the federal government endorsed Christianity by protecting the cross in California or is it a secular tribute to those who have fallen for our country? We think it’s the latter, but we also believer there is wisdom to be gained in the asking.


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