On Memorial Day, we remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation by laying down their lives to protect our freedoms.
One of those freedoms is the right to worship, or not, as you see fit. It’s ironic, therefore, that increasingly we are seeing examples of sectarian symbols, mainly crosses, being pressed into service as one-size-fits-all memorials for deceased veterans.
In San Diego, a 43-foot-tall cross atop Mt. Soledad on government land was the subject of litigation that spanned 25 years. Crosses had been erected repeatedly on the site since 1913 and were often used as backdrops for Easter sunrise services. No one attempted to label the Mt. Soledad cross a war memorial until it became the subject of litigation, and that designation was controversial. Many people pointed out that the cross, the central symbol of Christianity, didn’t include non-Christian veterans, whose sacrifice was no less worthy.
Memorial Day is a time to remember all members of the Armed Forces who have died for our country.
AU filed several briefs in the case, including one on behalf of military historians. This brief explained that the military has long recognized the cross as a uniquely Christian symbol and has not used it to memorialize non-Christian soldiers.
The matter was settled in 2015 after the cross (and the land underneath it) was sold to a private group.
In 2004, officials in the city of King, N.C., decided to create a veterans’ memorial park on public land. The memorial included a Christian flag (a white field with a red cross inside a blue canton) and a statue of a soldier kneeling before a Latin cross. A local man, Steven Hewett, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and the recipient of the Bronze Star, pointed out that a display featuring Christian elements didn’t include all veterans. But officials in King refused to budge, so in November 2012, AU filed a lawsuit in federal court on Hewett’s behalf. About two years later, the case was settled out of court. The city agreed to stop flying the Christian flag and to remove the statue.
Another pivotal case took place 10 years ago, when AU helped Roberta Stewart win the right to use the Pentacle, the symbol of Wicca, on her husband’s grave marker. Sgt. Patrick Stewart was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2005, and his wife wanted to honor him with the symbol of his faith, but officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs argued that the Pentacle was not on its list of “approved” religious symbols. AU filed suit on Stewart’s behalf, and attorneys for the government quickly agreed to settle the case. The Pentacle was added to the approved list as part of an out-of-court settlement.
In recent years, AU has been involved in challenges to sectarian war memorials in Boone County, Mo., Knoxville, Iowa, and other communities. Critics have accused us of dishonoring veterans. The opposite is true: We’re trying to ensure that the service of all veterans is honored. (See more about this issue here.)
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists, Wiccans, non-believers and others have laid down their lives to defend this country. On Memorial Day – and every day – let’s strive to ensure that all are remembered and honored.