A looming constitutional crisis now hangs over the Mojave National Preserve in California, and the stage is set for a constitutional battle at the U.S. Supreme Court. The story is a bit convoluted, but the issue at stake is a cross erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars at Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert. The VFW erected the cross in 1934 as a memorial to the dead of World War I. Sixty years later, that piece of property became part of the Mojave National Preserve, which is under the supervision of the National Park Service. That sets up a legal battle that arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The cross, just six and a half feet tall, is now covered with plywood. The Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the display of the cross is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. An appeal of that decision now goes before the nation’s highest court — and the eventual ruling could have sweeping effects.
The Supreme Court’s rulings in similar cases have bred nothing but confusion. In recent years, for example, the Court has held that a display of the 10 Commandments in Texas meets constitutional muster while a display of the same 10 Commandments in Kentucky is unconstitutional. The very fact that the Court accepted this case may indicate that it intends to clarify the confusion it has itself spawned.
The Mojave cross became the focus of legal action in March 2001, when Frank Buono, a former assistant superintendent of the preserve, filed suit to demand that the cross be removed from government land. Buono, a Roman Catholic, claims that he is not offended by the cross as a religious symbol but by the fact that it stands as part of a national preserve. He claims to be offended because the National Park Service will not remove the cross and that other religious groups are not allowed similar displays.
In an attempt to resolve the issue, the National Park Service transferred the property on which the cross stands to private ownership. Nevertheless, lower courts have found that this does not represent a satisfactory solution in light of constitutional questions.
The case before the Supreme Court, Salazar v. Buono, raises very few new issues. For this reason, many observers expect that the Court’s majority must intend to send a message as they rule on this case. If so, the Court could finally declare its unwillingness for the legal system to be used as a means of constantly challenging any religious symbolism on government property or under government supervision. If it does not rule in this direction, the stage could be set for an avalanche of legal claims against everything from the language on our coinage to the text of the Pledge of Allegiance.
In a brief submitted to the Court, lawyers for the American Center for Law & Justice made the following observation:
This case is only the most extreme example of a phenomenon that has plagued the federal courts for the past three decades. Ideologically motivated citizens and public interest groups search out alleged Establishment Clause violations, almost always in the form of a passive religious symbol or display of some sort, and make a federal case out of offense at the display. The basis for standing is typically that the religious display offends the sensibilities of the plaintiffs. The offense may be characterized as an affront to religious values, or as one in which plaintiffs feel stigmatized as political or community outsiders. But the sum and substance of the injury is that the display bothers the plaintiffs.
This raises one of the central constitutional questions faced by the Court: Is being offended or bothered by a display sufficient cause to be granted standing for a federal lawsuit? As numerous observers have recognized, the only claims accepted by the courts in this regard are those related to religious expression or symbolism. “Offended observer” status is a legal disaster. There is no end to the reasons why any citizen may be offended at any time by any display, language, or symbolism. If the Court does not put an end to this argument, the floodgates will be opened for a virtual flood of similar claims.
After all, the Mojave display is hardly unique in this respect. Far more visible is the Argonne Cross in Arlington National Cemetery, for example, or the Memorial Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland.
Arguing for the retention of the display, lawyers for the government are expected to argue that the Mojave cross is constitutional because it represents a secular symbol intended to honor those who died in the nation’s service in World War I.
At this point, Christians should pay particular attention. While the government’s lawyers try to press their case, Christians should reject any argument that presents the cross as a secular symbol. There is nothing remotely secular about the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Arguments for the constitutionality of religious language and symbolism based in the supposedly secular character of the speech or imagery may win in the courtroom, but the arguments are devastating to authentic belief.
Of all people, followers of the Lord Jesus Christ must be the first to insist that the cross is a symbol of Christian faith, pointing directly to the cross on which Christ died as our substitute. The cross must not be reduced to a generic symbol of death and the memory of loved ones.
Salazar v. Buono is a case worth watching. The eventual outcome of the case may set a direction for Establishment Clause challenges in decades ahead. Yet, the arguments presented in this case may be just as important as the eventual decision handed down by the Court. Even as the government’s lawyers present the arguments they believe will best serve their cause, Christians must serve the cause of Christ.
In this case, this means that we must defend the integrity of the cross as the preeminent symbol of Christian belief. As the Apostle Paul would remind us, we must frame our arguments carefully and never compromise the meaning of the cross. The cross is about Christ’s atonement for sin. We must never be even the slightest bit unclear about the meaning of the cross, lest it be robbed of its power.
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