There has been a disturbing willingness on the part of some judges in recent years to treat the Christian cross as a symbol that isn’t, well, just Christian. The most high-profile and problematic example of this was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s suggestion that a large cross that had been erected on public land in the Mojave Desert wasn’t really the symbol of one religion, but could be considered a fitting symbol for all Americans honoring the war dead.
That’s ridiculous. There is no clearer symbol of Christianity than the cross, as both Christians and non-Christians can agree.
And yet there are times when displaying a cross, or any religious symbol, can be appropriate in a public setting. A federal appeals court properly remembered that last week when it ruled that a cross known as the “Cross at Ground Zero” could remain on display at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.
In this case, the cross was not built and pressed on the museum to add a religious aspect to the commemoration of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Rather, it was part of the story of the attack, a found object created when a column was transected by a crossbeam. Workers on the rescue and demolition crews that cleared the rubble saw that it resembled a cross and began going to it to pray and leave notes. The cross is an artifact of the site’s history and deserves a place at the museum. It is part of a larger exhibit about how people tried, some through religion and others in different ways, to find meaning after the attack. Also in the exhibit are gifts from foreign nations that include symbols of other religions.
There was some disturbing wording in the ruling by a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, especially the assertion that the cross had become a “symbol of hope and healing for all persons.” Crosses are symbols of hope and healing for Christians, not for the Americans who hold other beliefs and make up 23 percent of the U.S. population. It is demeaning to non-Christians for judges to contend that the symbol of the dominant religion is meaningful to all; that’s practically the definition of government establishment of one religion over another.
The judges were on firmer ground when they concluded that the presence of the cross would clearly be understood by visitors as a symbol of “how some people used faith to cope with the tragedy,” and as one artifact among many to help tell the complete story. Similarly, a cross at the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton appropriately marks the site of the first baptism in California in 1769.
Just as the courts shouldn’t allow crosses to dominate public landscapes only because someone wanted to erect one, they should not allow people who are uncomfortable with such symbols to suppress them when they are a valid part of our collective history.
There is no clearer symbol of Christianity than the cross, so why are some judges giving it broader meaning?