The cross at a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland. Photo Copyright 2019 Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Written by Don Byrd

In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the Baptist Joint Committee made a powerful case that a large, longstanding cross on publicly owned land in Bladensburg, Maryland is unconstitutional, and urged the Court not to open the door to new displays of a similar nature even if this particular cross is found lawful. In support of the BJC’s argument, the brief articulates, as Holly Hollman says, “what should go without saying:” that the cross is not a secular symbol.

Here is an excerpt from the brief, which counters the claim of Bladensburg Cross advocates, including the United States government, that the cross is a generic and secular, memorializing symbol:

Petitioners would… reduce the cross from the most fundamental and most sacred Christian symbol to the least of religious symbols. . . .Over and over, petitioners describe the cross as merely a memorial in “the shape of a cross,” and similar circumlocutions, as though shape in this case were some incidental characteristic of little importance.

For the United States, the question is whether, in light of its “secular context,” a reasonable observer “would view the cross as a religious display in the first place.” And remarkably, the United States appears to answer no to that question. Every observer of the cross inevitably sees it “as a religious display in the first place,” no matter how well informed the observer may be about the Commission’s claim that the cross also conveys an allegedly secular message. To claim otherwise is absurd.

For Christians who think seriously about the events and message that the cross represents… petitioners’ claims are deeply offensive. They subordinate what the cross means to millions of faithful Christians in a welter of transparent secular rationalizations.

There is no ambiguity about the primary, predominant, and objective meaning of a Latin cross. 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. Christianity is what one encountering this cross thinks of “in the first place,” and the aggressive rationalizations of petitioners’ version of the reasonable observer cannot change this obvious and dominant meaning.

The brief was joined by other Christian and Jewish organizations, and was written by church-state scholar Douglas Laycock. For more information and helpful perspective, I strongly recommend this podcast produced by the BJC, which features Holly Hollman and Amanda Tyler discussing the case and the brief. It’s about 20 minutes and well worth a listen!