Tag Archives: Crosses

Devil’s Cross

I was rereading the Supreme Court’s opinion in Salazar v. Buono, the case concerning a cross erected in the Mojave Desert in 1934 by a group of veterans in order to commemorate American soldiers who died in World War I. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens took his usual rigid view in any case dealing with display of symbols: the cross “necessarily” conveys an “inescapably sectarian message….Making a plain, unadorned cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular. It makes the war memorial sectarian.” Justice Stevens also cited approvingly the district court judge’s view that the cross is “exclusively a Christian symbol.”

The more I read these lines, the more implausible I find them and the view of symbols that they represent. Perhaps another way to put my skepticism is that any observer who believed this about a symbol like the cross would be unreasonable–the sort of person who could not effectively administer a “reasonable observer” standard in Establishment Clause cases of this kind. The implausibility of the view is conceptual but it also is empirical. Though I recognize that anecdotes are not data, still, personal experience is worth something. The “holiday” of Halloween was for children when I was a child, but it seems to have become a kind of modern-day equivalent of Venetian Carnevale circa 1760. No matter; this year, I am grateful to Halloween for offering a useful challenge to claims about what the symbol of the cross must mean, in all times and places, for all people.

My neighborhood is child-saturated, and as a result Halloween is widely and noisily celebrated. Part of the celebration involves the display of putatively spooky lawn decorations of motley sorts, among the most popular of which is the “creepy gravesite” ensemble. It used to be that round headstones were the convention. But now one increasingly sees in such arrangements the presence of a cross. Here’s a fairly typical setup:

Devil's CrossProbably my surreptitiously taken picture does not do justice to the mise en scène. But what it displays is a simple black Latin cross with the words RIP at the base. You can see that the cross is surrounded by other Halloween acoutrements–a skeleton in the ground, gravestones, spiderwebs. All around these sit related objects–werewolves and other hairy and unsavory creatures, a plastic witch, ghosts dangling from trees with flashing red eyes, and so on. This sort of decorative landscape is extremely common. The presence of a cross in it is less so, but just in my own neighborhood, I counted 4 displays that contained a cross of some sort.

Suppose that a municipality chose to display something like this on town hall grounds at Halloween. What would it be communicating? What does a cross mean in a display like this? Its meaning is complicated because it is situated in several contexts. It sits first within a mock cemetery but the point of the display is not remotely either commemorative (as in a memorial for the dead) or Christian. The point of the display is to celebrate, in a lighthearted, cute, and possibly mischievous way, all that Halloween has come to represent as an occasion for kids: the occult, mild wickedness, spookiness, and so on. It would make a dour schoolmarm of Christianity to say that displays like this are anti-Christian. Of course they are not. But it would verge on sheer absurdity to claim that a cross in this sort of context conveyed “an inescapably sectarian message,” or that what would otherwise be a tribute to spooky kid fun just must be transformed into a celebration of Christ by the inclusion of a cross.

It is true that even in this context, the meaning of the cross is to some extent connected to the original Christian meaning. It is so connected in this weak way: had there been no prior Christian meaning, there could have been no subsequent tradition in which crosses have come to convey a commemorative message, and therefore no cultural context within which a cross could come to find its way into a Halloween cemetery display. But noting that atavic genealogical connection is very different than assigning this particular cross–or others like it–an indelibly Christian meaning today.

It might be argued that the meaning associated with the Halloween cross only arose because people are ignorant of the Christian, soteriological meaning. That seems uncharitable to me, but also mistaken. What is more probable is that meanings intertwine, and that it becomes difficult over time to disaggregate the religious meaning from other fair, culturally specific interpretations. As I write in The Tragedy of Religious Freedom about the Mojave Desert Cross:

Just as it is impossible to distinguish precisely where the religious ends and the artistic begins in a Bach oratorio, a Giotto fresco, or a Dantean canto, so, too, is it fruitless to attempt to tweeze away the Buono cross’s civic submeanings from an antecedent religious meaning. But the fact that it is unprofitable to perform this exercise in segregation, and in quantifying the importance of this or that meaning, does not mean that permitting these various submeanings to exist is equivalent to condoning state sponsorship of religious belief. Religious and cultural meanings may and do interpenetrate across time. And meanings that emerge from that interpenetration are not ipso facto constitutionally impermissible, but invitations to historically and contextually graduated judgment.

District Court Rejects September 11 Cross Challenge

In my book, The Tragedy of Religious Freedom, I have a chapter that tells “A Tale of Four Crosses” in an effort to flesh out my approach to questions of religious liberty, and specifically government display of religious symbols.  One cross in the tale is the September 11 cross–a collection of beams which fused together amid the debris of the tragedy and was discovered by a rescue worker.  The cross provided inspiration, solace, and hope to many people who were grieving at the time.  After various developments, the state decided to display the cross in a museum about the events on that day, but this was opposed by American Atheists, Inc.  I conclude in that chapter that, applying my method (and not the Supreme Court’s tests), display of the cross in a state museum is almost certainly constitutional.

Applying the Supreme Court’s tests, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York agreed.  In an opinion issued March 28, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in a case brought by American Atheists, Inc., which challenged the constitutionality of displaying the September 11 cross in a state museum.  The Port Authority donated the cross to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, Inc.  The Foundation attempted to display the cross in the museum, but American Atheists sued to block this from happening on Establishment Clause grounds.

That claim was rejected by the district court (Batts, J.).  After finding that the activities of the Foundation constitute state action, the court laid out the Establishment Clause standard in Lemon v. Kurtzman and the Supreme Court’s subsequently elaborated “endorsement” test.  The parties agreed that display of the cross satisfied Lemon’s requirement of “secular purpose,” inasmuch as the reason for its display was “historical and secular.”  As to secular “effect” (which generally is the same as perceived “endorsement” in this context), the court said this–and note in particular the permissibility of “acknowledgment” on the part of the state:

[S]ince the cross is housed in the Museum, its inclusion–in the September 11 Museum context with placards to explain why it was included in the Historical Exhibit–does not advance or endorse religion.

Plaintiffs assert that because the cross was used during Christian religious ceremonies, it is unlike historic religious objects that are housed in museums.  They, however, cite no case law making such a distinction.  Rather, the fact that the artifact is housed in the Historical Exhibit helps to negate any “sacred message” even though it “undeniably has a religious message.” . . . . Also helping to negate any potential endorsement is the fact that the explanatory placards will accompany the artifact . . . . Moreover, the acknowledgement that many rescuers and volunteers found [solace] in the cross is not an endorsement of their religion . . . .

Plaintiffs also argue that because the artifact is seventeen feet tall, its size signals endorsement because no other artifact is as large as the cross . . . . Although the size of the item may be a factor in determining whether government endorsement exists, here, the cross is seventeen feet tall because that was the artifact’s size when it was found.

Kansas Municipality Changes City Seal After FFRF Complaint

The City Council of Buhler, Kansas, has decided not to fight the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which complained that Buhler’s City seal — which displays a very prominent Latin cross — violates the Establishment Clause.  You can see a story with the seal here; the seal was apparently created in 1988.  And here is an open letter from the Mayor of Buhler to its residents, indicating that the City did not have a taste for an expensive litigation with FFRF which it was very uncertain to win, and which might well deplete the City’s small budget.  Note some of the attachments to the letter as well, including a memorandum opinion from the ACLJ, suggesting that in light of Tenth Circuit case law, the City would be advised not to go to court.

Perhaps the problem was in the tension within Buhler’s own motto, “Traditional Values, Progressive Ideas.”  Sounds like a recipe for conflict.

Temperman (ed.), “The Lautsi Papers: Multidisciplinary Reflections on Religious Symbols in the Public School Classroom”

This November, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers will publish The Lautsi Papers: Multidisciplinary Reflections on Religious Symbols in the Public School Classroom edited by Jeroen Temperman (Erasmus University Rotterdam). The publisher’s description follows.

Increasingly, debates about religious symbols in the public space are reformulated as human rights questions and put before national and international judges. Particularly in the area of education, legitimate interests are manifold and often collide. Children’s educational and religious rights, parental liberties vis-à-vis their children, religious traditions, state obligations in the area of public school education, the state neutrality principle, and the professional rights and duties of teachers are all principles that may warrant priority attention. Each from their own discipline and perspective––ranging from legal (human rights) scholars, (legal) philosophers, political scientists, comparative law scholars, and country-specific legal experts––these experts contribute to the question of whether in the present-day pluralist state there is room for state symbolism (e.g. crucifixes in classroom) or personal religious signs (e.g. cross necklaces or kirpans) or attire (e.g. kippahs or headscarves) in the public school classroom.