Crossing Over The Wall

Religious Right Assails Separation In Calif. Case

In their desperation to keep a cross displayed inside a national park in California and knock a large hole in the wall of separation between church and state, Religious Right legal groups are making some unusual arguments.


In briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, they say the cross on Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve is an appropriate symbol to memorialize American war dead.


This is simply not the case. The cross is a sectarian symbol; indeed, it is the core symbol of the Christian faith. It has great meaning for Christians, but it is not, and was never intended to be, a secular symbol. The cross cannot memorialize the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and others who gave their lives in the service of our nation.


The other claim is equally offensive. It asserts that people who are offended by the presence of sectarian symbols on public land just need to get over it. It’s no big deal, the Religious Right says.


But it is a big deal. Religious symbols should never be co-opted by the government. Symbols have meaning and power. Symbols are used precisely because they are immediately recognizable and convey a strong message.


The situation before the Supreme Court in the California dispute is somewhat muddled because of the specific facts of the case. The first cross there was erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It has been replaced several times since by private citizens.


In an effort to keep the sectarian symbol in place, Congress declared it a “national memorial” and mandated a land exchange transferring the cross and the property beneath it to private hands.


No one should be fooled by this. There are no signs, fences or other markers in the area indicating that the plot of land underneath the cross is no longer federal property. Anyone visiting the area would assume that the cross was part of the preserve, located on public property.


Furthermore, when a private citizen sought permission to erect a Buddhist stupa in the same area, he was denied. This is a clear case of government favoritism toward Christianity.


The Salazar v. Buono case presents other challenges as well. Religious Right groups are asking the high court to water down its “standing” doctrine – that is, to say that people who are offended by religious displays on government property shouldn’t even have the right to seek redress in court.


The Religious Right is using this case as a battering ram to assault the church-state wall. It is a dangerous move – and one the Supreme Court should reject.