The cross is not secular, and the government has no business sponsoring its display

STATUS: The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Feb. 27, 2019. A decision expected by the end of June.

Click here for a spring 2019 column on the case from Holly Hollman, which ran in Report from the Capital, BJC’s flagship magazine.

Read coverage of the arguments on the BJC Blog.

Click here for the BJC’s February 27 press release and listen to a podcast discussing the oral arguments.

Click here for the BJC’s January 31 press release, after filing the brief.

A 40-foot cross on government land at a major intersection is unconstitutional, according to a brief filed by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) and other Christian and Jewish organizations. The cross, located in Bladensburg, Maryland, violates the government’s fundamental obligation to be neutral between competing religious claims.

The friend-of-the-court brief was written by church-state scholar Douglas Laycock, who holds endowed chairs at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas, and filed at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of The American Legion v. American Humanist Association.

After oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Feb. 27, 2019, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman gave the following statement:

“The importance of honoring the sacrifice of veterans and their families is not disputed. Honoring veterans does not require altering our country’s commitment to religious liberty  – a commitment that demands government neutrality among different religious traditions.

The cross matters to us as Christians. It has a powerful, specific meaning that is central to our faith. Non-Christians also recognize the specific meaning of the cross, which is why we stand with them in saying no, the cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice. The cross symbolizes the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a story not shared outside of Christianity. Its display by the government is unlike the Ten Commandments or temporary holiday displays.

Whatever its intentions, the government’s claim that the cross simply stands for valor to commemorate war dead does not ring true. For Christians who think seriously about the events and message that the cross represents, the government’s claim is deeply offensive. Christians should reject that claim and the short-term perceived gain of preserving a prominent government-sponsored symbol of our faith. 

We are fortunate that our constitutional tradition has kept the government largely out of religious matters, leaving ours and other religions free to flourish on the strength of their own merit. We do not need the government to promote our faith nor do we want the government to distort it.”

The American Jewish Committee, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, General Synod of the United Church of Christ, and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) joined the brief.

Excerpts from the brief:

“Using the cross to honor our nation’s war dead reflects either the erroneous assumption that our military is comprised entirely of Christians, or the equally erroneous assumption that the most sacred symbol of Christianity somehow honors non-Christians as well.”

“Petitioners’ welter of alleged secular meanings for the cross, and their efforts to minimize its religious meaning, are offensive to many Christians. The Commission violates its obligation to be neutral among faiths both when it sponsors the cross and when it spins stories attempting to secularize the cross.”

 “The cross is not a secular symbol, and neither the Commission nor the Court can make it so.”

“The cross is the central symbol of Christianity, invoking 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.”

“The Latin cross was not arbitrarily chosen to honor the dead; it is not just an elongated plus sign. If that were all, a division sign would work as well. The cross honors the Christian dead because it promises resurrection.”

“To hold that government today can do anything that early generations of Americans did would turn the First Amendment into a Protestant capture. The principle of keeping government out of religious controversies remains the same, but what is religiously controversial has changed as religious diversity has increased.”

“If this Court says that a Latin cross is predominantly secular, then words and symbols have no meaning and the Court has consigned the Establishment Clause to the world of Alice in Wonderland.”

“To hold that government cannot sponsor a freestanding cross does not imply the removal of every cross from every government venue. Most obviously, privately chosen religious symbols on individual tombstones are plainly constitutional.”

Photos

The BJC has high-resolution photos available of the cross for publication with permission. Contact bjc@BJConline.org with requests.

New Podcast:
Post-argument reflections

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler and General Counsel Holly Hollman share their reflections and analysis of the oral arguments. Click here for more details on the discussion

Resources

Supreme Court Brief

Read the full friend-of-the-court brief filed by the BJC, American Jewish Committee, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Podcast

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler and General Counsel Holly Hollman discuss this case and the BJC’s brief.

Commentary by Holly Hollman and Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee:
Christians and Jews agree: The Bladensburg Cross is no secular symbol

Published by Religion News Service