Crossing up the veterans

mojave-crossHere we go again.

I have heard from some readers who want to know what GetReligion thinks of the coverage — specifically the A1 news feature in the Washington Post — about the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union and a several other groups to take down a simple cross erected in honor of World War I veterans on an outcropping of rock on federal land in the Mojave National Preserve in California.

Right now, the cross is covered in a rather ugly plywood box to hide it from desert wanderers who might be offended.

Conservative are outraged, of course, and this latest excursion into the shifting sands of church-state law is about to hit the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is about more than this one cross, of course. It’s about the role of religious symbolism in veterans memorials all over the place.

So am I supposed to share what I think about the case or am I supposed to focus on what I think of the Post report? Once again, readers need to remember the mantra that is so beloved by your GetReligionistas: This is not a blog about religion news. It’s a blog about how the mainstream press struggles to cover religion news.

So let me say this about the A1 Post story: It looks fine to me, both as a reporter and as a guy with a graduate degree in church-state studies. It contains, for example, insightful and informed quotes on both sides of the debate. This passage is especially nice:

It seems an improbable importance for this piece of desert land, where temperatures regularly hit three digits, an hour can go by without a passing car and somewhere nearby is likely to be a Mojave Green, the desert’s own highly lethal variety of rattlesnake.

“It’s just a little cross in the middle of nowhere,” said Wanda Sandoz, who with her husband Henry is the cross’s unofficial caretaker. Henry built the cross that currently occupies the spot — there have been three — and the Sandozes say they are fulfilling a WWI veteran’s dying request to look after things.

Hiram Sasser, a lawyer with the Liberty Legal Institute, which represents the Veterans of Foreign Wars and assists the Sandozes, agreed. “I always say you have to risk life and limb to be offended by this cross,” he said.

At the same time, many of the voices on the other side are themselves religious believers, including Jewish and Muslim veterans.

Meanwhile, the other pivotal issue in this case is whether it is possible for a Christian cross (or a Jewish menorah, for example) to be used as a neutral, “secular,” symbol. In this case, we are also talking about a cross that stands alone — not one that is part of a government memorial containing other symbols.

One of the opponents is not so sure that he likes the idea of a non-Christian cross:

Despite what supporters say was its secular birth, the cross for years has been the scene of Easter sunrise services, and the challenges began in 1999, when the U.S. Park Service denied an application from a Buddhist to build a shrine nearby. Frank Buono, an assistant superintendent, informed his boss that the presence of the cross violated the Constitution’s establishment clause.

Buono is Catholic, but he said he was offended by the religious display on federal land. “The cross is important to me because it is the indispensable symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Buono said in an interview. “But it isn’t right that the symbol of my religion, or any religion, be permanently affixed to federal land.”

Well now, you can imagine how much legislators enjoy being asked to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on the fate of a cross that is popular with elderly war veterans.

So it’s a complex story, with strong emotions and arguments on both sides. In this case, I think the Post did a fine job of letting readers hear from interesting, informed voices.

And what do I think of the case itself? Click here and then here for hints.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tim

    as a Christian, i have a problem with the symbol of the One who gave himself up to die for the redemption of all Creation being used to honour men who died for the welfare of a few countries only because the didn’t kill the other guy first.
    sorry for my lack of eloquence.

  • Gregory

    “But it isn’t right that the symbol of my religion, or any religion, be permanently affixed to federal land.”

    What should we do with all the crosses in federal cemeteries?

  • Dave

    I think the article goes astray when it delves into the history of Ten Commandments displays on public land. The 10C are an example of early law-giving and can be contextualized by inclusion of other examples — Hammurabi’s Code, eg — of the same thing. A lone memorial cross is starkly a cross and cannot be mistaken for anything other than a symbol of Christianity.

  • Judy Harrow


    The Crosses in federal cemeteries are joined there by Stars of David, Pentacles, and many other religious symbols, as appropriate to each individual grave. That is precisely the kind of inclusive pluralism that TMatt is arguing for. In cases like that, all we need to do is to make sure that *all* religious symbols are allowed (a very recent struggle for bereaved families of my own religion, but that’s tangential right now).

    That is a very different matter than a single Cross representing all the war dead, of every faith and none, which profoundly disrespects both the core American principle of freedom of religion and all the war dead who were not Christians.

  • tmatt


    The issue mentions the presence of other symbols near the 10C tablets, but could have done a stronger job of stressing that theme in the Supreme Court texts.

    Did you follow the links to my columns on some of this? Context and diversity has emerged as the only common theme in this mess.

  • Jerry

    I know that to Christians the cross has a specific meaning which people react to positively and negatively, but there are also other, pre-Christian meanings attached to the cross. I wonder what would happen if the cross in question, or perhaps in other controversies, had a plaque attached to it that said that the cross represents the human form and is a symbol of the sacrifice that was made to uphold human values? I think I can can predict what various groups would say, but what would the courts say?

    Has this ever come in in media reports or court cases?

  • T Stanton

    Wow – I really like the quotation from the guys who seems to be saying that the Cross is such an important and holy religious symbol, that it ought not to be sullied by being used in way not in concert with that holiness.

    You just don’t hear that perspective very often -a good one.

  • Dave

    Terry, I couldn’t resist going to your columns but I found them difficult to read, as they are presented in such small type on-screen. I agree that context and diversity can be dispository in whether a display is within bounds or not.

    My personal, somewhat simplistic preference would be to have no religious symbols or utterances promoted by any unit of government; but I don’t have the Supreme Court on my side on that one.

  • tmatt


    Do you use Safari? It’s really easy to change the type size.

  • Peggy

    In reading your post I found I had Qs about the history of the cross and the disputes. I think the Post set that out well. It’s too bad that the Congressional fix didn’t satisfy folks. I am surprised that, at this point, it could not have been considered some sort of historical artifact of the development of the West, even though the federal lands were established. It should have been taken down immediately if it was unconstitutional–as violating or defacing federal lands, something like that. But it’s a different world now, eh?

    Unlike the Catholic in the article, Buono, I don’t find the plain cross symbol to be as meaningful as a crucifix.

  • Dave

    Sorry, I don’t have Safari.