Posted by: bkivey | 29 April 2010

That Old Rugged Cross

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of
the people

First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified 15 December 1791

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in Salazar v. Buono that a Latin cross placed on public land in the Mojave National Reserve did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court’s ruling centered on the facts that the cross had been in place for seven decades prior to the lawsuit, that it was erected and maintained by private individuals, and that Congress had designated the 1-acre site where the cross sits as a National Monument and transferred ownership of the land to the local chapter of the VFW, with the understanding that that body would maintain the site. The cross was erected in 1934 as a memorial to WW I dead and has been the site of memorial services on Easter Sunday intermittently since 1937 and regularly since 1984.

The lawsuit was brought by a Mr. Frank Buono and aided and abetted by the ACLU. This case is another illustration that the ACLU and plaintiffs like Mr. Buono and his ilk fail to understand that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. Those that object to the words in America the Beautiful and the motto ‘In God We Trust’ on U.S. currency and coinage and the seasonal appearance of religious symbols in public demonstrate a particularly petty narrow-mindedness and failure of intellect.

The reasoning for the objections to religious symbology is usually some variation of the ‘implicit endorsement’ argument. If a government allows a religious symbol on public land then that constitutes an implicit endorsement of that particular religion. Even if that were true, it still would not violate the Establishment Clause. That particular clause refers to explicit or coercive endorsement of religion, as pointed out by Justice Hugo Black in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) when he wrote:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

Those familiar with history of the founding of this nation are aware that a significant number of people came here to escape the oppression of State-mandated religious practices. The Founders were all too aware of the consequences of State-established religion and proscribed it in the fundamental law of the land. The First Amendment and the rest of The Bill of Rights are designed to restrict government, not the citizenry. If private citizens wish to display religious artifacts on public land, there is nothing in the First Amendment or anywhere else in the Constitution that prevents them from doing so. If a group wants to put up a cross or a Star of David or a Muslim crescent or even a Wiccan pentacle, as long as government does not allow one over the others, the Establishment Clause is satisfied. Are we to believe that the religious symbols on tombstones in national cemetaries across the country constitute an ‘endorsement’ of a particular religion?

Another argument trotted out by the religious symbol busybodies is the ‘offense’ argument. The belief is that Americans are so lacking in fortitude and discernment that the mere display of a religious symbol will cause permanent psychological damage. While the perpetrators of this argument purport to be looking out for the interests of society, invariably the only people taking offense are the very small minority who seem to think that their personal beliefs should be imposed on everyone.  Are they then not guilty of the same offense that they impute to government?

When people engage in attacks on religion in a country where religious freedom is jealously guarded,  they don’t do themselves, or a free society, any favors. Most people in this country profess some sort of religious identity,so attacking religious symbols garners them no friends, and in fact it is not large groups of people that make these complaints, but usually single individuals that display a breathtaking disrespect and intolerance for the beliefs of their fellows.

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