Church-State Separation Wedged Between Rock (of Ages), Hard Place

Church-State Separation Wedged Between Rock (of Ages), Hard Place September 25, 2018
church-state separation
Maryland governor visits Bladensburg Peace Cross, April 2018. (Maryland GovPics, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

A majestic, 40-foot-tall Peace Cross on public property at a busy traffic circle in Bladensburg, Maryland, starkly shows why keeping church and state separate is, to put it mildly, difficult.

A sacred monolith

The rose-hued granite and concrete cross, dedicated in 1925, bears the names — literally written in stone — of 49 local men who died in World War I. As few monuments in the area do, it embodies heavy patriotic gravitas.

As you might imagine, any initiative to alter, much less demolish the Christian-cross-shaped monolith would be instantly frowned upon by many in the Bladensburg area, if not nationwide.

Responding to opposition to the monument by church-state proponents, a federal judge in 2015 declined to order its removal, citing its historical significance as a secular war memorial.

A subsequent challenge to the Peace Cross was formally filed by the nonprofit American Humanist Association (AMA), which prevailed earlier this month in their push for removal of a 34-foot-tall World War II memorial cross in a city-owned park.

Court rejects cross

This March the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that the monument was a “preeminent symbol of Christianity” and represented an unconstitutional government entanglement with religion. One of the appellate judges suggested that severing the arms of the cross might solve the problem, according to a Washington Post article today.

The sacredness conferred on American war dead endows the church-state debate with an added layer of emotional complexity. The sense is that disturbing the monument is tantamount t to disturbing and dishonoring the dead. As 4th Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in a dissenting opinion:

“Life and change flow by the small park in the form of impatient cars and trucks. That is disturbance enough. I would let the cross remain and let those honored rest in peace.”

Ruling appealed

The 4th Circuit decision was appealed, and Maryland’s governor and attorney general, and bipartisan members of the U.S. Congress support overturning the ruling to let the monument stand as is. Supporters of the monument fear the circuit court ruling, of not rescinded, would put similar monuments at risk across the country.

“The decision below calls into question the constitutionality of countless federal monuments, historic places, and national traditions that use a cross or other ‘inherently religious’ symbols or language to commemorate our nation’s history and to reflect values shared by the American people,” attorneys for a alliance of 109 members of Congress contended in a court filing.

Discrimination against non-Christians

AMA, in its legal filing, contends that an inherently religious Christian symbol on public land “discriminates against patriotic soldiers who are not Christian, sending a callous message to non-Christians that Christians are worthy of veneration while they may as well be forgotten.”

The upshot is that the U.S. Supreme Court today could decide whether to review the 4th Circuit ruling on the constitutionality Bradensburg’s Peace Cross.

But whatever ruling the highest court ultimately hands down, it won’t please everyone.

Subsequently, resentment will continue against what are viewed as secular intrusions into religious-patriotic traditions deemed sacrosanct by many Americans.

‘Sacred’ tradition

These traditions are so embedded and glorified and deified in American life that whether they violate our founding principles seems irrelevant to many millions of our citizens.

That’s what makes it wrenchingly difficult to pay homage to the United States’ founding ethos while appropriately honoring those who have died for American ideals.

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Cover image of “3,001 Arabian Days.”

 

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