Cross photo copyright 2019 Baptist Joint Committee

By Holly Hollman, BJC General Counsel

It is odd to have to explain the explicitly religious meaning of a Latin cross. The cross is an immediately recognizable representation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For Christians, it is a singular, powerful symbol of God’s love and the promise of eternal life. It is not something we expect the government to display and call a “cross-shaped memorial” or universal symbol of valor.

The First Amendment’s religious liberty protections ensure that the government remains neutral in matters of faith, not picking favorites or taking a position on religious truth. Yet those principles are at stake as the U.S. Supreme Court considers arguments about a cross on government land.

As explained in a brief filed by BJC, along with other Christian denominational and Jewish groups, calling a cross a memorial does not solve the constitutional problem. The brief begins this way: “The Latin cross at issue stands in splendid isolation, forty-feet high, in a traffic island in a busy intersection.” Whatever one may know about this particular cross and how or why it is where it is, what drivers and passengers see “is the preeminent symbol of Christianity standing all alone in the public right of way.”

The brief responds sharply to the systematic efforts of petitioners — a local government entity in Maryland and The American Legion — to secularize the cross and minimize its religious significance. In their zeal to preserve this cross on government land, petitioners – and many of their supporters – would desacralize what to Christians is the most precious symbol of the central promise of their faith: “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

The importance of honoring the sacrifice of veterans and their families is not disputed. The government’s claim that the “objective meaning” of the cross is to commemorate war dead, however, does not ring true. For Christians who think seriously about the events and message that the cross represents, petitioners’ claim is deeply offensive. We should reject it and the short-term perceived gain of preserving a prominent government-sponsored symbol of our faith.

We Christians in America tend to take religious freedom and our majority status for granted. 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.

Of course, religious references and imagery are common in many of our country’s traditions, and not every religious display on government property presents a constitutional question. Unfortunately, we have seen efforts to conflate this cross with the entirely different context of crosses and other religious symbols on individual grave markers in military cemeteries. Those markers are not part of this case, nor are they impacted by it. Misguided claims to the contrary show an unwillingness to take the constitution’s religious liberty protections seriously.

The constitutional requirement of government neutrality between diverse faith traditions is rarely challenged, which makes this case an important one to watch. The Court is being urged to weaken the standards that keep government from preferring one religion over another. Perhaps the Court will find a way to uphold this particular cross that would not open the door to new efforts by government to sponsor religious
displays. Our brief explains what is at stake. We hope the Court will recognize that there is no ambiguity about the primary, predominant and objective meaning of a Latin cross.

As Christians, we recognize the distinct nature of the cross as the preeminent symbol of our faith, a faith that is not shared by all veterans, much less all Americans. We should never rely on the government to advance our faith, and we should protect the religious liberty of all Americans by insisting that our government shows no favoritism for the majority religion.

For more on this case, listen to a preview podcast featuring Hollman and another podcast wrapping up the oral arguments. You can also read a blog post with details on what was said in the courtroom.

This article appears in the Spring 2019 edition of Report from the Capital. Download the magazine as a PDF or read a digital edition.