The Supreme Court's Cross Examination

A cross on federal land reignites the church-state debate

This article is from the archive of our partner .

This Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on a case that has revived debate around the separation of church and state. Does a cross erected on federal land as a war memorial violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment? What if the the one-acre plot where the cross stands was transferred to private owners? Editorial boards and bloggers are split. Those opposed to the cross argue that it suggests a state sanctioning of Christianity, while others believe that removing it would imply a hostility to religion contrary to the spirit of the constitutional principle.

No Cross

  • Discriminates, Violates Separation of Church and State, charges the New York Times editorial board: "Religious symbolism of this kind on government land is, by its very nature, exclusionary."  Furthermore, it "sends a message that state and church are intertwined. A single cross does not, by itself, mean America has an established religion, but if the Supreme Court stops caring that the government is promoting a particular religion, we will be down the path toward having one"
  • Congress Wrongfully Meddled with the Case, argues Erwin Chemerinsky at the Los Angeles Times, discussing Congress's decision to transfer the small parcel of land with the cross to private ownership. "A U.S. District Court and the 9th Circuit both concluded that this was a sham transfer ... The government cannot avoid abiding by the Constitution by transfers of public land to private hands." Chemerinsky argues that doing so is tantamount to putting a cross atop city hall and then giving the roof away to private owners.

Keep Cross

  • Don't Misinterpret the Constitution, write Ted Cruz and Kelly Shackelford in the Wall Street Journal. "The theory being advanced by the ACLU is that no religious symbol can be allowed on public land," they write, but that's a "radical" claim, "contrary to the original understanding of the Framers, and to how the Supreme Court has long interpreted [the clause in question]." In fact, say Cruz and Shakelford, "[t]he Constitution prohibits government from favoring one religion over another, but it does not compel hostility to faith."
  • Get a History Lesson  John Ray at Stop the ACLU agrees: "The constitutional prohibition was written to forbid the government endorsing one particular denomination," the example being the "'established' Church of England in Britain at the time. Nothing like that has ever been contemplated in America."
  • The Plaintiff Is Overreacting, writes Joseph Infranco at the Los Angeles Times regarding the man who originally challenged the cross. "His hypersensitivity drove him to undermine a reasonable compromise ... In effect, when elected officials in Congress and millions of veterans disagree with one easily offended man, you say the offended man wins--an extraordinary proposition."

Lyle Denniston at Scotusblog also notes some possible legal ramifications of the court's decision. The plaintiff, Frank Buono, is a Roman Catholic and said he doesn't find the cross offensive. However, he objects to the fact that the cross is on federal property. Because of this, Dennison explains, "The case has the potential to re-define what kind of injury an objector must show when confronted with a purely religious symbol on public property."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.