File this one under that growing category: Be careful what you wish for.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court overruled lower courts, and held that a huge Maryland cross can remain on public land–that its location on public property and the fact that it is maintained with tax dollars is not enough to find that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause.
The cross “has become a prominent community landmark, and its removal or radical alteration at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions,” the court wrote. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion for the court.
“And contrary to respondents’ intimations, there is no evidence of discriminatory intent in the selection of the design of the memorial or the decision of a Maryland commission to maintain it. The Religion Clause of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, and the presence of the Bladensburg Cross on the land where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.”
In a truly impressive demonstration of cognitive dissonance, Justice Alito characterized removal of the cross as “hostility to religion” and denied that the cross had religious significance.
Alito argued that the cross had essentially become secular. He invoked the history of World War I memorials noting the rows and rows of crosses and stars of David at cemeteries that memorialized those who died in that war and that established in people’s minds, in his view, that that was a way to honor to dead.
Gee, I wonder why Justice Ginsberg disagreed with Alito’s “history.”
“Decades ago,” Ginsburg wrote, “this Court recognized that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution demands governmental neutrality among religious faiths, and between religion and nonreligion. … Numerous times since, the Court has reaffirmed the Constitution’s commitment to neutrality. Today the Court erodes that neutrality commitment, diminishing precedent designed to preserve individual liberty and civic harmony in favor of a ‘presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices.'”
She adds, “The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’ … Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized.”
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Court was trying to avoid another culture war reaction by the White “Christians” still smarting from more significant rulings like same-sex marriage. The ruling by its terms only protects monuments already erected and longstanding; it is unlikely to protect efforts at new construction.
Ironically, what it is likely to do is further the “secularization” of symbols previously considered Christian. That transformation has already occurred with Christmas trees, after the Court declined to attribute religious significance to them. I doubt seriously if the sight of those ubiquitous, gaily adorned trees triggers theological reactions in anyone these days.
A Christian clergyman friend of mine opposed prayer in school irrespective of the First Amendment, because–as he put it–“I don’t pray to ‘whom it may concern.'” His opposition was based on experience; when religious devotions or symbols become public, they inevitably become generic, losing their religious character.
White Christians who fear their loss of social dominance will undoubtedly cheer Justice Alito’s intellectually incoherent decision.
Christians who care about protecting the meaning of their religious iconography will be less enthusiastic.