Symbols and Secularism – What Sort of Secularism do we Want?

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has recently expressed opposition to a proposed memorial recognizing victims of the Holocaust to be erected on public ground in Ohio (see artist Daniel Liberskind’s design above). The grounds of their complaint is that the memorial’s design features a prominent Star of David created from negative space, and therefore creates the impression that the state (which will provide significant funding for the project) is recognizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust over other victims (such as Roma Gypsies and queer people), and is thereby entangling itself with the promotion of religion in an unacceptable way. Dave Silverman of American Atheists just went on Fox News to defend the FFRF’s position saying, among other things:

“It’s important that we not give the Holocaust to just the Jews,”

I don’t want to address, in this post, the fantastically crass nature of such remarks: I hope that any sensitive reader will recognize that, regardless of where you stand on the question of the memorial, phrasing one’s opposition in such a way is nothing less than inflammatory. Leaders of national organizations should be expected to communicate their ideas in a responsible way, and the quote above is highly irresponsible and hurtful. Nor do I want to discuss the obvious fact that such a lawsuit is a massive public relations nightmare for atheists, who are already being called “holocaust deniers” in some quarters for this stance. This is the worst strategy for a movement which seeks broader acceptance.

Rather, I want to tackle the substantive question here: whether such a monument should be opposed, either on legal or ethical grounds (Dan Fincke has explored these questions too here and here). The legal and ethical questions are separable and distinct: are the FFRF correct to assert that such a memorial violates legal precedents preventing entanglement of church and state in America?; Do we wish to live in a society which would prevent such a memorial from being erected at some public expense?

The Legal Question: Is Such a Monument a Threat to the Separation of Church and State?

I am not a lawyer or legal scholar. However I have consulted briefly with Eddie Tabash, constitutional lawyer at the Center for inquiry, and longtime protector of church-state separation, and I think it important to note some aspects of FFRF’s complaint. First, they only object to what they see as a “potentially unconstitutional entanglement of government and religion” (p. 2). Even they are not asserting that the memorial is unconstitutional: only that it is potentially so. They cite a significant amount of legal precedent to support their case that the Star of David has often been recognized as a sectarian religious symbol, demonstrating that it has been regarded so repeatedly by courts in the past. And they argue, I think correctly, that it is possible to create powerful memorials which do not include any religious imagery at all. This is all relevant to making a judgment in this case.

The heart of their complaint seems to be the following:

“The planned memorial could be seen as a government endorsement specific to the Jewish community, as opposed to all other groups affected by the Holocaust” (p. 2).

In the minds of the FFRF, the presence of a big Star of David on this memorial represents the promotion of Judaism by the state (which is constitutionally prohibited), and therefore a memorial which did not include said Star would be preferable. Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has pointed to a case against a veterans’ memorial which includes Christian crosses, suggesting that a similar principle is in play here.

Do the FFRF have a good legal case?

According to constitutional lawyer Tabash, the central question is this: would a reasonable person viewing the monument consider it to be a government endorsement of the Judaism as a religion? If the answer is “yes”, there is an entanglement there. If the answer is “no”, there is not. This question is not an easy one to solve: it depends on hazy concepts and difficult judgments like what we consider a “reasonable person” to be.

In my judgment, given the history of use of the Star of David – which was used by the Nazis to identify individuals they wished to harm, including Jewish people who were not practitioners of the Jewish faith (Hitler did not care if you were a practicing Jew) it would be unreasonable to see the presence of a Star of David on a holocaust memorial as the endorsement of the Jewish faith by the government. Rather, the symbol in that context, it seems to me, is more reasonably viewed as a reference to the use of the Star to identify victims, and as a reference to the central role antisemitism played in motivating the Holocaust.

Interpreting the Star as a government endorsement of the Jewish religion requires an unreasonable rejection of central historical facts regarding the use of that symbol. A reasonable, well-informed observer (and any reasonable observer would seek to inform themselves) would see in this memorial not an attempt by the government to promote Judaism, but an attempt by the government to memorialize a despicable moment in human history, and to educate about it: a secular purpose. So, in my view, there is no legal problem here (this case is similar to that of the 9/11 Cross, which seems to me to also hinge on questions of how a religious symbol is functioning – see here).

While I am made somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that this monument does seem to minimize to some degree the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the fact that it may do so does not constitute a legal problem for the monument: we can be in the position of saying we would prefer a more inclusive monument, but that we recognize that  the monument as-designed is in fact legal.

The Ethical Question: Do We Wish to Live in a Society which Prohibits Such Memorials if Publicly Supported?

Even if there was a constitutional problem with the memorial, I would argue that that would represent a problem with our interpretation of constitution, and not with the memorial. I  do not believe that we should seek a form of secularism in which the government cannot memorialize victims of an attempted genocide by using a symbol of the oppressed people simply because that symbol has a religious meaning.

If we were to imagine a genocide in which the victims were entirely members of one religious group – let’s imagine a religious group which is not also an ethnic group, to make the thought experiment clear – I would consider it entirely legitimate for the government to memorialize that event by funding and building a monument which prominently displayed the symbol most closely associated with that religion. Memorializing an event which is closely related to a religion by using the symbol of that religion is not the same as promoting that religion, and the state has a legitimate secular interest in educating about past atrocities for the purpose of encouraging ethical consideration and development.

Ultimately, while I want to live in a secular society, I also want to live in an intelligent, thoughtful, historically-literate society which is capable of recognizing the difference between promotion of religion and memorialization of an atrocity. In this instance, the historical context of the Star of David, its history of use as a symbol of a persecuted ethnic group, and the educational value of memorials of this sort, override the constitutional concerns raised by the FFRF and its supporters. Even if it turns out a constitutional challenge were valid, I would oppose that interpretation of the constitution. This is another battle we should not be fighting.

My posts on the 9/11 Cross are also relevant to this case. The first establishes the facts of that case. The second expands on my reasoning. The third addresses the reasons American Atheists lost the case.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Steve Ahlquist

    I agree that Dave Silverman is a lunkhead, and it’s too bad his point of view so often lacks nuance. That said, opposition to the current proposed design of the Ohio Holocaust Memorial can and should be made in a careful way that focuses on the importance of separation of church and state in defending the individual’s right to freedom of and freedom from religion. This is not an atheists versus Jews issue, and secularists should be willing to defend reality from the ludicrous opinions of holocaust deniers and still maintain that it is inappropriate to use government funds and government land to showcase a religious symbol so prominently. Two other designs were considered and rejected, both of these designs could conceivably accomplish all the intended goals of such a memorial and not raise these Constitutional issues at all.

    It is difficult to make this case, but all secular, humanist, atheist and scientific cases are difficult. Easy answers and capitulation are beneath us. We should be prepared to make the difficult, nuanced case even when it’s difficult. Let the lunkheads say what they will. Disavow those who go for the easy soundbite or who are unwilling to actually think about these issues before they speak. Stand up for some principles. Stand up for a form of separation of church and state that doesn’t allow for the “slightest breach” to borrow from Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

    I’ve written more about this here: but you get the idea.

    • jflcroft

      I appreciate this point of view. The reason I take a different position is 1) because I think there IS no constitutional issue (also the opinion of Tabash, constitutional lawyer and scholar); and 2) because I do not want to live in a society which prohibits monuments such as this. I think it flatly unethical to declare as a rule that a monument such as this is a breach of secular principles. There is a big difference between recognizing the role of religion in an atrocity and promoting that religion. I wish to live in a society which recognizes that distinction.

      • Steve Ahlquist

        I think of church/state separation as more than a legal term. Courts decide cases based on whether or not any particular breach is substantial or liable to cause injury but the principle of separation as a means of defending liberty of conscience itself is bigger than any one case or case law in general. As secularists or even as Americans we should not allow “public support” for the denigration of our principles to override our commitment to them. This smacks of the tyranny of the majority to me.

        The fact that two other proposals were rejected shows that this is simply an issue of design, no different from deciding on the design of a website, in which certain criteria must be met. If I can be cheeky for a moment, if rejecting one of three Holocaust Memorial designs is enough to make one an intolerant anti-Semite, what does that say about the selection committee that rejected two out of three designs? Are they twice as hateful?

        In fact, as much as Fox News and Dave Silverman want to make this about “atheists versus religion” it’s really about maintaining a truly inclusive, pluralistic state.

        I also object to the idea that this case is anything like the WTC Cross. The Cross was to be a small part of a large display, and carried some historical significance in that Christians did in fact find solace in its presence during the crisis. The Star of David created via negative space in the proposed memorial is the center of the display. It’s where the eye will be naturally drawn when viewing the piece. As a design element it actually overshadows and destroys the intent of the monument’s purpose because religious symbols are easy and facile ways of invoking meaning and awe.

        • Grotoff

          You are suggesting that it is always inappropriate for the government to employ a religious symbol in a monument? Even when it is both historically accurate and pertinent to the heart of the monument? The Holocaust swept up many non-Jewish groups, but it was specifically begun because of the Jews. That’s a key legitimizing fact, in my mind.

          • Steve Ahlquist

            I am not suggesting that public land and money used for the display of prominent religious symbols is always inappropriate, I am saying it outright. The fact that the use of the symbol is historically accurate is irrelevant: All monuments should be historically accurate or they should be taken down. The pertinence of the symbols in question to the meaning of the monument is also irrelevant. If there is indeed a secular, non-religious motivation for putting up such a memorial, as I believe there is, then there should be a secular, non-religious way to design it. In fact, the selection committee had two secular, non-religious design choices and went for option three. I think it is fair to point all this out, in deference to the principle of separation of church and state that helps to protect our freedom from religion and freedom of conscience.

          • Grotoff

            I’m with James. That’s not an America or a secularism that I am comfortable with. Knee-jerk attack of religious symbols used in secular ways will only anger the majority, and is beside never going to be held up as constitutional.

          • Steve Ahlquist

            I would object to your latest response in four important ways. First, my reaction is not a knee-jerk one. I take great pains to outline my position, so at least give me that much. Secondly, whether or not this particular instance of religious symbols on public land is constitutional or not is besides the point. Defending the principle of church-state separation is important even if the courts consistently rule against it. Courts, even the Supreme Court, are not perfect. Third, it is possible to express this point of view in such a way as to not “anger the majority” and since when is angering the majority such a bad thing? The majority twenty years ago were angered by the suggestion of legalizing gay marriage. Making a persuasive case takes time. Fourth, what kind of secularism are you comfortable with? One that allows government paid religious encroachment into public spaces? How is such a position secular?

          • Grotoff

            The idea that all use of religious symbolism by a government for any reason whatsoever is out of bounds is definitely knee-jerk. It’s based on fear and suspicion, not an honest regard for secularism.

            Secularism should defend against the endorsement of any particular religion by the government for which we are all responsible. There should be a wall of separation between the church and the state. That does not extend to trumped up offense at the use of a legitimate historical symbol in the appropriate way. It is entirely justifiable to highlight the plight of the Jews in the Holocaust, while also including the horrors inflicted on other groups. The symbol is on their flag for goodness sake. Are we going to take offense at the use of crosses in the national cemetery next?

            Of course majority opinion matters, whether or not it fits your moral expectations. Pushing for referendums for gay marriage even 5 years ago would have been a terrible mistake. Momentum is part of the equation. You have to pick your hill to die on. It’s a strategic question, not just one of immutable principle.

          • Steve Ahlquist

            I did not say that the use of religious symbols by the government for any reason whatsoever is out of bounds. I said government should not use public funds and property to feature such symbols prominently, especially when the exact goals the government wishes to meet can be met without the use of such symbols, as the existence of the two other designs indicates. Also, take note of the many other holocaust museums and monuments that do not feature such symbols. Are they somehow less effective in conveying their message?

            The knee-jerk fear reaction is al, yours, Grotoff. You have straw manned my arguments, and demonstrated fear as to the reaction of the majority. You have also acknowledged that my fundamental point is correct, but implied that now is simply not the time for the case to be made politically. You may actually be correct about the politics, but you are wrong to imply that the fundamental principles I am defending here are radical or intolerant. Not making the case for a strong secular society is intolerant, and sacrificing your principles for political gain (or less, since there is nothing to be gained by not defending them and everything to lose) represents a failure of conviction.

          • Grotoff

            Um, yes, you did say that. “I am not suggesting that public land and money used for the display of prominent religious symbols is always inappropriate, I am saying it outright. The fact that the use of the symbol is historically accurate is irrelevant: All monuments should be historically accurate or they should be taken down. The pertinence of the symbols in question to the meaning of the monument is also irrelevant.” That’s bullshit. The symbol has a legitimate secular use, just as the cross does within particular contexts. You’ll never find a rational judge saying otherwise, nor should you.

            You really think that there is nothing to lose by fighting against a completely secular Holocaust memorial that creatively features the symbol of the majority of the victims? You really think that?

          • Steve Ahlquist

            I’m starting to suspect that you are not honestly debating this issue with me. You are pretending there is no difference between the statement “public land and money used for the display of prominent religious symbols is always inappropriate” and “the use of religious symbols by the government for any reason whatsoever is out of bounds” when in fact they are actually different claims. Read those two statements and if they are truly equivalent in your mind, then I see no further reason to defend my position to you, since you will have shown an impervience to nuance.

            Also, bringing up the “rational judge” is also beside the point. The FFRF said in their letter that they will not be suing over this. What they did was send a letter reminding a state government of their duty to preserve and protect a secular society. How is this out of bounds? Pointing out that there are reasonable, secular alternatives to large religious symbols does not make one an enemy, and does not have to engender combat, except perhaps in the comment sections of blogs.

            Lastly, the inclusion of the large Star of David gives lie to your claim that this is “a completely secular Holocaust memorial.” You have not addressed the issue of the completely secular alternatives that were rejected. You attempt to put opinions and arguments on me that I never made such as, “Are we going to take offense at the use of crosses in the national cemetery next?”

            The fact that the Star of David is on the flag of Israel, a country that does not separate church from state, actually bolsters my argument. Israel is not a secular state, much to its detriment.

            And yes, I can make the argument that this memorial should be more secular in its design and lose nothing in the process. I am on the steering committee for the RI Council of Churches new Interfaith initiative and count many prominent Rabbis as friends and colleagues. I can make this case and offend no one, because my position is not one based on hate or ignorance or weak arguments, its based on a strong sense of secularism and a desire to protect and encourage religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

            If we atheists and Humanists can not stand by our convictions as strongly as those with religious points of view, then we are ceding our commitment to our values in a way that makes us cowards in the eyes of those who disagree with us. The one way to make this case is to do so honestly, with patience, and with compassion. I’m okay with having failed to convince you, but I will not be easily pigeon holed into your preconceptions either.

          • jflcroft

            Steve, I’m not sure what your legal justification is for the statement: “public land and money used for the display of prominent religious symbols is always inappropriate”. Could you clarify for me?

          • Steve Ahlquist

            I’m not making a legal case here. If I were, I might refer, as I did already, to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s assertion that the court could not, in good conscience, approve the “slightest breach” in the wall separating church and state. My main point is that there is no problem inherent in defending the value of secularism in this case. We can point to two completely secular alternatives that provide the same amount of meaning to a holocaust memorial. We can point out that in this case, (and every other case really, this being simply a problem of art and design) it is not actually necessary to use religious symbols to convey what the government is trying to say. Therefore, secularism, being something we all value, can be one of the criteria we insist upon in all expenditures of public land and money for memorials of this kind.

            I am arguing that we can make this case as atheists, humanists and secularists without risking undue recrimination if we make the case carefully and refuse to let the argument devolve into hate speech, straw manning and personal attacks. Too many would be secularists are, in my opinion, abandoning secularism because of the percieved difficulties of making this case.

          • jflcroft

            I actually agree with this, to the extent that were such an argument to be made we could in principle do it in a way which is not inflammatory. I still see no reason to be concerned with this particular memorial, however – something to discuss next month? ;)

          • Steve Ahlquist

            I always look forward to our time together, James!

          • Grotoff

            How are the crosses in the national cemetery NOT prominent?

            This is just the wrong battle to waste our energies on. The memorial does not endorse any religion, but simply highlights a key historical fact. Whether or not another symbol could be used is unimportant. It’s a question of aesthetics, not religious principle.

          • Steve Ahlquist

            I’m not going to get into the ridiculous comparisons between gravestones, chosen by the individuals and families of a particular person buried in the ground, and large prominent monuments built on public land with public money to convey messages the government deems important. You’re comparing two entirely different things.

            If it is indeed a simple question of aesthetics, then the design of the monument fails, because in order to satisfy the criteria of a proper, publicly funded monument on public land the monument should be at least secular, able to convey the intended message, and be pleasing to the eye. (There are many more criteria this particular design would have to satisfy, such as cost, size, etc., but the three I listed seem a good place to start.)

            Given that two other designs were submitted that satisfied the criteria outlined, they are inherently better designs.

          • jflcroft

            “If there is indeed a secular, non-religious motivation for putting up such a memorial, as I believe there is, then there should be a secular, non-religious way to design it.”

            I think this is a non-sequitur at the heart of your case. I do not believe it is necessarily implied that a monument with secular effect need have secular components.

          • Steve Ahlquist

            A publicly funded memorial on land owned by the public, should, at a minimum, satisfy certain criteria. Designing such a memorial is no different than any other design problem. A memorial like the one proposed should be pleasing to the eye, make the statement the government intends to make, and be secular. This is after all a secular government, as I hope everyone reading this will agree. Since two other designs (and I would suggest a multitude of other potential designs as well) have been submitted that satisfy the criteria, the use of prominent religious symbols becomes unnecessary.

            Calling the above observation a non-sequitur is puzzling, as the existence of two designs that satisfy my criteria of “secular, non-religious” designs exist, making the statement almost unnecessarily obvious.

            Certainly it is possible to produce a work using religious imagery that achieves a secular effect, but in so doing, we are using those symbols in ways that may be insulting to believers. When the government decides to use such symbols, and re-contextualizes them, they are again making religious judgements about the symbols. (In this case the assumption is that it is okay to potentially insult some religious believers by using their sacred symbols in ways they do not endorse. This was my point regarding the cross on public land in Providence. Some religious believers felt the use of the cross in a display on public land was crass and insulting.

            I would contend that when the government steps in and decides on the value and valence of religious symbols, they are crossing the wall of separation, to the detriment of both church and state. Yes, this may not seem like such a big deal, and yes this might not seem like a battle worth having, but I maintain that the case needs to be made and that pointing out these facts in no way diminishes our movement.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Good stuff, James. Especially given that other groups targeted by the Holocaust are mentioned, and that the Star of David was used to identify Jews who weren’t religious, even ethnic Jews who had converted to Christianity, this should be a non-issue.

    • Steve Ahlquist

      Certainly not all Jews use the Star of David to identify themselves. “Some Orthodox Jewish groups reject the use of the Jewish Star of David because of its association with magic. Neturei Karta and Satmar reject it because they associate it with Zionism.” (Wikipedia)

      So is the Star of David, in the context of this memorial, not a Jewish symbol used for self identification but a Nazi symbol describing their victims? How is this view of the issue respectful, since we are allowing long dead Nazis the right to define our discourse?

      A few years ago my local Humanist group protested a Christian Cross on public land here in Providence. After the cross was removed I was on a cable access program with the Reverend Donald Anderson, an American Baptist minister, who I consider a friend. He publicly stated that he thought the use of the cross on public land, in the context it was presented, actually devalued and insulted the cross, a symbol that he personally finds great religious value in. He was glad to see it taken down.

      I would be very careful about recontextualizing religious symbols in our rush to find nothing offensive about their use, especially on public lands and when using public money. This is one of the many reasons we separate church and state and fight for a secular society. Government should not be making decisions about the proper way to display or utilize religious symbols.

      • SocraticGadfly

        1. Nazis defining our discourse? Man, I’ve seen straw-grasping before, but that’s at a pretty huge level. No, nobody’s “defining discourse.” We’re, rather, “discussing history.”

        2.”Some” Orthodox groups isn’t all, or close.

        3. The Star of David has been used to identify Jews since the Spanish inquisition.

        4. As already noted, the Nazis used it (we’re “discussing history” still, not having Nazis “define our discourse,” to identify secular Jews on ethnic grounds, too.

        That said, I don’t expect to change your mind one iota. Others in comments haven’t either. I do expect to simply point out where you are engaging in special pleading, “for the record.”

        • Steve Ahlquist

          1. I asked a question, I was not grasping at straws. Perhaps I should be more clear: Who gets to define what the Star of David means? In this case, the government is using the Star of David as a symbol that has been defined many ways by Jews and non-Jews alike. If the government steps in and decides to use a religious symbol in a certain way, they are passing judgement of a sort on the value and definition of the symbol. This is outside the purview of a secular government.

          2. Obviously. Did I say otherwise?

          3. Yes. It is certainly an old and venerable religious symbol, valued by millions throughout history.

          4. Again, obviously.

          The special pleading is all on the other side. I’ve made my case repeatedly in these comments and elsewhere that secularism is an important value in this country. No one has provided a good reason why an exception should be made in this case. Instead, they have expressed the opinion that the exception is minor or the exception is necessary. As to the latter, the existence of two alternative secular designs proves the use of the Star of David is not necessary. As whether or not the use of the symbol is minor, that’s in the eye of the beholder.

          I think people interested in a secular society and those who many who value the Star of David as a religious symbol would disagree as to how minor a breach this is.

          As to this not being a case worth fighting, I never said the case should be fought. But I think we should certainly point out that this memorial violates a deeply held American value, or stop pretending that we value secularism at all.

  • Simon3456

    I am glad that you consulted an expert on this. Are you adding the “well-informed” to the “reasonable person” standard on your own or was that also something Tabash advised you of? I’m unable to discern based on how it was phrased.

    Also, I will ask of you what I’ve been asking Dan Fincke: namely, are you equally “uncomfortable” with the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston that does not feature a Star of David? Or with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that doesn’t have one prominently placed? Both of these were built with government funds and to my knowledge huge involvement of very prominent Holocaust Survivors eg Elie Wiesel in the latter. Have you done a comparison with other memorials worldwide for that matter?

    • jflcroft

      I think “reasonable” implies “well-informed”, because a reasonable person seeks to inform themselves before making a judgment. I am not uncomfortable with either of those memorials. The Boston one, I think if I remember correctly, includes references to non-Jewish victims.

      • Simon3456

        However, at issue is not the text, but the prominently placed Star of David.

        • jflcroft

          And I have argued here why I think that is entirely in keeping with a secular state.

          • Simon3456

            And I argue that *not* having the symbol is certainly more (or at least also) secular and also common practice among similar memorials elsewhere.

  • Laurence

    From my understanding, is that the law often does not distinguish between the motives or nuances of monuments. While intelligent people are able to distinguish the difference between something that promotes religion and something that celebrates history, the law can be blind to that affect. If a consequence of allowing a monument such as this to be created with public funds is that it also allows monuments or displays that simply promote a religion to be created more often with public money, then I think it is a small sacrifice to not put religious symbols in the monument. If there is not a legitimate concern of that consequence, then ethically, I think the monument is fine. Otherwise, I would have ethical qualms about allowing it. Especially given the overwhelming concern of religion creeping into every facet of our government.

  • kieuoanh

    I think it is necessary for an overall picture should not just Holocaust to the Jews. As in the secular state is still discrimination between nations should make equitable and harmonious.

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