Written by Don Byrd

A friend-of-the-court (amicus) brief signed by religious liberty advocates, including the Baptist Joint Committee, and filed with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals argues that a towering memorial cross on government property in Florida cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny. In the brief, the groups emphasize that the Latin cross is “the preeminent symbol of Christianity.”

The case, the brief states, “is an easy one:”

Pensacola’s Latin cross was erected with an unambiguously religious purpose; its display has an overwhelmingly religious effect; and it communicates to all observers that the City favors Christianity. If that were not enough, Pensacola’s mayor has expressly stated that he seeks to preserve the cross because he “hope[s] there is always a place for religion in the public square.”…The City’s display straightforwardly violates the Establishment Clause.

The argument goes on to discuss the Founders’ understanding of the Establishment Clause, noting that the “architects of the First Amendment recognized that ‘religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.'”

Most powerfully, the amici explain the importance and potency of the cross as a religious symbol. “The cross is not merely a symbol of Christianity; it is the symbol.”

The brief continues:

Pensacola’s display of the Latin cross in Bayview Park … employs the cross’s clear, unequivocal message to communicate governmental favoritism for Christianity. Not only is that message forbidden by the Establishment Clause, but it disrespects and infringes the religious freedom of Pensacola residents, Christian and nonChristian alike.

The Pensacola area is home to considerable religious diversity. To many—including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and atheists—the government’s prominent display of the central symbol of Christianity is a strong message of exclusion: It officially communicates that “Pensacola is a Christian community; those who don’t share our faith do not belong.” That message is not just wrong but dangerous. For “nothing does a better job of roiling society” than “when the government weighs in on one side of religious debate.”

The Pensacola cross was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year by a district court judge, though he seemed to regret that the law requires that outcome. The brief signed by the BJC and others urged the 11th Circuit to reject the judge’s critique and misunderstanding of church-state precedent. You can read the entire brief here.