By Jennifer Hawks, BJC Associate General Counsel
A 34-foot Latin cross on government property is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, as a federal court in Florida held earlier this year. The Baptist Joint Committee is one of several religious organizations asking that the ruling be upheld.
On Nov. 22, the BJC joined with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and 12 other religious and religious liberty organizations to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola, supporting those challenging the display. After a trial court determined the cross monument in a city park violated the Establishment Clause, the city appealed the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The BJC has long opposed government-sponsored religious monuments as antithetical to the Establishment Clause’s purpose of ensuring a religiously neutral government that equally treats all religious faiths (including the absence of faith) without preference or discrimination. The brief explores how separating the institutions of government and religion has safeguarded religious freedom.
The brief asserts that “[g]rounded in both the understanding that freedom of conscience is an essential component of faith, and the experience of a long, sad history of religiously based strife and oppression, the principle of separation recognizes that governmental support for religion corrodes true belief, makes religious denominations and houses of worship beholden to the state, and places subtle—or not so subtle—coercive pressure on individuals and groups to conform.”
Responding to the notion that the cross could be a generic secular symbol to honor the dead as opposed to the preeminent symbol of Christianity, the brief notes that “to downplay the significance of the Latin cross is to misunderstand its essential nature and abiding power, both for those who revere it and for those who do not.”
The trial court ordered the city to pay the plaintiffs $1 in damages and remove the cross within 30 days, though the order to remove the cross was stayed until the appeal can be considered.
The brief has also been signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Anti-Defamation League, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Jewish Social Policy Action Network, National Council of Jewish Women, Muslim Advocates, Sikh Coalition and the Union for Reform Judaism.
As of press time, oral arguments before the 11th Circuit had not been scheduled.