The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case regarding the constitutional validity of a war memorial in Maryland in the shape of a Christian cross. The memorial is known as the Bladensburg Peace Cross and stands on government property. At issue in the case is a 40-foot cross erected as a memorial for those who died in service during World War I. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case later this summer.
Constitutional law scholar Garrett Eppsnotes that the result from this case “may help resolve disputes over local memorials around the country.” It might also tell us something about the approach of a new conservative Supreme Court.
While the case underscores the ongoing conflict over the place of religion in American public life, as a scholar who studies this area, I believe there is more to understand here. This is not the first such conflict. In a diverse society, these symbols can have meanings that go beyond religion.
The memorial sits on public land, at the center of a busy intersection in Prince George’s County, in Maryland.
In 1919, a local group of citizens including 10 mothers who lost their sons in World War I formed the Prince George’s County Memorial Committee. Together with the Good Roads League of Prince George’s County, they launched an effort to memorialize those who died in service during the war. In 1922, American Legion Post 3 volunteered to join the effort to build the memorial.
The memorial effort set out to dedicate the highway between Bladensburg to Annapolis as the “National Defense Highway.” It also decided that a memorial cross be included at the beginning of the highway. The intent behind the design was to invoke “patriotism and loyalty to the nation” as well as, in the words of treasurer of the Memorial Committee, to serve as a “grave stone” for her son.
Donors who supported this the initiative signed a pledge which stated,
“We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the Supreme ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers who gave their all in the world war to make the world safe for democracy. Their mortal bodies have turned to dust, but their spirit lives to guide us through life in the way of godliness, justice and liberty. With our motto, ‘One God, One Country and one Flag,’ we contribute to this memorial cross commemorating the memory of those who have not died in vain.”
The memorial was dedicated on July 12, 1925. A plaque on the memorial is inscribed with the names of 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County who died in the war.
In 2014, three citizens filed a suit in the District Court of Maryland claiming that the display of a massive Christian cross on public property was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In 2017, the case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Virginia. In a ruling, the judges said that the cross “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles government in religion.”
Mount Soledad Cross case
This wasn’t the first war memorial in the shape of a cross that was legally challenged. For over a quarter century, the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla, California, was subject to litigation.
The Mount Soledad cross is a 43-foot cross which was once on publicly owned land. In 1989, a Vietnam War veteran filed suit against the city of San Diego in U.S. District Court over the presence of a religious symbol on public property. In 1991, the court ruled the cross was “unconstitutional and had to be moved off public land.”
The 1991 ruling led to a series of appeals in the federal court system that spanned decades. To end the protracted and ongoing legal drama, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association agreed to purchase the public land beneath the cross.
Upon passage by the House, Hunter stated, “Across the country and beyond our shores, America’s military and veterans are proudly represented by war memorials that also display symbols of personal faith and religion.”
Though not law, the passage of the bill by the House demonstrates the extent of the conflict around the presence of religious symbols in American war memorials.
Both people of faith and those who are non-religious can feel uncomfortable with memorial crosses. For example, Daniel Headrick, an associate pastor, lawyer and 2018 fellow of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, writes, “To reduce the cross to a symbol memorializing war sacrifice is a quintessentially American act, but such a meaning is profoundly at odds with the theological significance of the cross.”
In other words, Headrick doesn’t believe a cross can be stripped of its religious meaning.
In a religiously plural democracy, war memorials with religious symbols can have different meanings for different citizens. These different meanings can be a source of conflict. Perhaps for this reason, the 19th-century French observer of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the political effects when religion gets “mixed up with the bitter passions of the world.”
The Bladensburg Peace Cross case like the Mount Soledad Cross and the War Memorial Protection Act are present-day reminders that there is always more than one meaning of religious symbols.
“The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a rule requiring that, under state health care exchanges, every enrollee in these insurance plans must pay a $1 surcharge directly into an account for abortions,” Carlson said. This comes after a January HHS directive that would require most religious employers to provide free contraception and other controversial reproductive health services in their insurance plans caused a political and religious fury.
Yale Legal Scholar Says Act Will Survive Supreme Court Scrutiny
But it would be “remarkable” if the Supreme Court struck down the act’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance and “revolutionary” if it struck down the act’s “extension of Medicaid to increase coverage for the poor,” Jack M. Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, said at The Atlantic. Overturning the medicaid expansion would “throw into doubt the way that modern federal government works with states and it would jeopardize many popular social programs,” Balkin said.
Projected Employer Insurance Dump Could Reduce Deficit
The Affordable Care Act will cause a lot of employers to “dump people on government-run exchanges to get them off their neck,” Philip Klein, senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner, said in an interview with CBN News. But a new Congressional Budget Office report “argues that dramatic increases in employer dumping could reduce, not expand, the deficit,” Forbes “Apothecary” blogger Avik Roy said in a post at The Atlantic. In another post, Roy said the idea that the U.S. health-care system is predominantly a free-market one is a myth. “In reality, per-capita state-sponsored health expenditures in the United States are the third-highest in the world, only below Norway and Luxembourg. And this is before our new health law kicks in.”
President’s Standing With Catholics in Jeopardy
Nonetheless, the campaign of religious conservatives against the act “is taking some toll on the president’s standing with Catholics,” The Washington Post reported. The article cited a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found “the percentage of white Catholics who said the Obama administration is unfriendly toward religion has nearly doubled since 2009, from 17 percent to 31 percent” and, among all Catholics, the percentage rose from 15 percent to 25 percent.
Republicans Have Troubles of Their Own
Republicans have problems with their own alternative to the president’s plan, however. On Thursday, House Republicans “voted to eliminate language in their healthcare reform bill that said the U.S. healthcare industry affects interstate commerce, which Republicans feared could undermine their argument that the Democrats’ 2010 healthcare law abused the Commerce Clause of the Constitution,” The Hill reported.
Prayer Rallies Left and Right
On Friday, pro-life groups held rallies in cities around the country to protest the “unjust violation of our religious liberty by the Obama Administration’s contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs mandate” and, on Sunday, they surrounded the Supreme Court building to pray “that justice may be done in these proceedings” and that “the religious freedom and freedom of conscience will be respected, that there will be no taxpayer subsidizing of abortion, and that the US Constitution will be honored.”
Today religious supporters of the act who want to “help people of faith move beyond cable news interpretations of health care reform” will follow suit by encircling the Supreme Court for prayer during oral arguments. According to The New York Times, their plan originated in the White House earlier this month.
As someone who joined the ranks of the uninsured this year for the first time in my adult life, I’ll be watching debate about the Affordable Care Act closely. I don’t know what the best solution is to the problem of unaffordable health insurance, but like an increasing number of Americans, I need one.
What do you think?
Do you want to see the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act enacted or overturned?
It’s been a monumental month in United States Supreme Court religious liberty decisions. First the court decided against hearing the Bronx Household of Faith’s appeal of a New York City Board of Education policy banning worship in public schools. Now the court has ruled that a teacher who taught religious classes at a Lutheran school was not protected under anti-discrimination employment laws because religious bodies have a right to hire and fire ministers as they see fit.
The Most Significant Decision in 20 Years
The New York Times reported that the Lutheran school decision may be the “most significant religious liberty decision in two decades” because, for the first time, it “recognized a ‘ministerial exception’ to employment discrimination laws, saying that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference.”
The case against the school was brought by Cheryl Perich, who spent 45 minutes each day on religious instruction, but “was a ‘called’ teacher who had completed religious training and whom the school considered a minister.” The school said it fired her for pursuing litigation against it in violation of church teaching, The Times reported.
In an op-ed at CNN.com, the attorney for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School said the decision was “a huge win for religious liberty.”
“Churches do not run the government, select government leaders, or set criteria for choosing government leaders. And government does not run the churches, select religious leaders, or set criteria for choosing religious leaders. The Court unanimously reaffirmed that principle on Wednesday,” said Douglas Laycock.
At USA Today, University of Notre Dame law professor and associate dean Thomas Messner said the ruling affirmed the “foundational principle” that “in a constitutional democracy like ours, secular governments lack the power to resolve religious disputes, to answer religious questions, or to select religious ministers.”
What About Sexual Abuse Reporting?
The Los Angeles Times reported that “lower courts have long recognized that churches are protected from lawsuits involving their internal workings.” But The New York Times noted that “at the argument in October, some justices expressed concern that a sweeping ruling would protect religious groups from lawsuits by workers who said they were retaliated against for, say, reporting sexual abuse.”
“Chief Justice Roberts wrote that Wednesday’s decision left the possibility of criminal prosecution and other protections in place. ‘There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances,'” The Times reported.
Peyote, Polygamy, and “Internal Church Decisions”
At Spiritual Politics, Religion scholar Mark Silk said, “The big deal is that two decades ago, the Court substantially undermined the constitutional right to free exercise in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), a 6-3 decision written by Antonin Scalia that held that two Native American drug counselors could not go to federal court to claim a religious right to sacramentally ingest peyote as part of their membership in the Native American Church.” The Smith decision referred back to an 1878 decision in which the Supreme Court “turned down the Mormon claim to have a free exercise right to polygamy,” Silk noted.
“Maybe ingesting peyote is an outward physical act distinguishable from being employed or not employed as the result of ‘an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.’ But anyone who knows anything about Mormon theology knows that the LSD Church’s embrace of polygamy–‘plural marriage’–was an internal church decision that affected its faith and mission profoundly. … The bottom line is that, having been forced by the Justice Department to confront Smith directly, the conservatives on the Court significantly walked the Scalia doctrine back,” Silk concluded.
More Pastors Protest Eviction from NYC Public Schools
Sonia Sotomayor appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her first day of hearings on July 13, 2009. (Photo: U.S. Senate images.)
It’s funny when you have a democratic system that for the greater part of 200 years really wasn’t very inclusive and established an environment where all the folks with any real clout pretty much thought alike, or at least looked alike.
For example, there was a documentary done in 2004 on a black congresswoman from New York named Shirley Chisholm. The film was called Unbought and Unbossed. In it people commented on the surprising notion of Congresswoman Chisholm running for President of the United States in 1972. One person, a white mid-20s woman, thought Chisholm was pretty bold to be running for the White House and observed that she had a lot of nerve to do it. In other words, “Is she crazy? That would never happen in this country!”
My, how times have changed.
Now that many of our longstanding American institutions are being challenged to become as diverse as America itself, and now that more and more of how America really looks as a nation is being weighed and measured throughout our culture, it seems to me that the majority culture’s routine lack of experience with people of different ethnic backgrounds is now coming into play based simply on the census of what our country looks like. We saw it with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, and we’re seeing it again with the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
The country has never experienced in its history this type of diversity being expressed in all areas of American life. So, the process that is currently taking place to confirm the first Hispanic woman as a Supreme Court Justice of the United States is fascinating to observe.
During the hearings this past week, some lawmakers didn’t know what to think. In their heart of hearts they just don’t know what to do because they’ve never been in this position of having to act on such a proposal of a Latina being a Supreme Court Justice. It is also true that a black president has nominated a Hispanic woman for the highest court in the land. And might I add this woman has opinions out of the courtroom, which are in question based on the Constitution, and that the law is blind, and that the scales of justice are equal.
However, one could cite case after case that proves, in reality, that this is not true and some laws in the past, Brown vs. Board of Education for instance, were not blind and not equal. So what makes up a strong United States? In my opinion it is when we recognize and embrace the great diversity of what America is, whom it represents, and what this amazing country embodies.
Sadly, based on the outbursts that took place on Day One of Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, it’s clear that some people just don’t know what to do when someone that doesn’t look like them, who isn’t the “norm,” is nominated to the highest court in the land. What do we think of her statements? We’ve never heard statements like this. What do we think of her background when she’s clearly qualified but doesn’t hold some of the same views and experiences that we hold? That, in essence, is the fear. We can’t predict her.
Or, perhaps what we’re actually saying is that we’ve never before had anyone who was a slice of what America really is on this kind of prominent stage where we can really hear her opinion. I think it’s the latter, and that’s okay. This is new territory for our great country and I love it. I love the fact that the conversation will come up as the scales of justice are slowly being adjusted to be truly balanced.
It’s like that reality show The Biggest Loser. Both teams of overweight people are weighed and the goal is to lose more weight as a team than the other team. The players want to tip “the scale” to their favor. That’s how most people of color, if they spoke honestly, feel about the judicial system in this country. But oh, the times are a-changing.
That is not code for, “Boy, are we going to get you back.” Not in the least. It’s simply straight talk for, “It’s time that all of our bodies of government represented all the people of the United States of America. And by no means have we reached “the mountaintop” as a country because we have a black president. What it shows other non-whites in this country (about Sotomayor as well as the reason emotions were so high with the election of our first black president, who called himself a “mutt”) is that finally, finally, things seem fair and equal. Obama actually ran, people actually listened, people really participated, there wasn’t a 35 percent apathy rate where that percentage of voters didn’t participate, which we know decided elections in the past. People were engaged. It was awesome, and I felt more connected than ever in the history of my 50 years of life.
And now, a Latina is about to be confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice … Amazing!
I say to our lawmakers, Relax, she’s an American who has a set of opinions that probably aren’t like yours. Just listen, make comments, and vote as you will. We know that Sotomayor’s nomination is truly a measure of the possibilities of our country to act upon its best asset — our diversity, our differences, our varied backgrounds and experiences, and our creative power to hold together the United States of America.
If I were a senator, would I vote for her? Yes. Do I have reservations about some of her comments? I do. Would I be tough on her in questioning? I would. Am I happy that a Hispanic woman is even being considered? I am, and it does feel good. It’s a funny, tickled feeling that makes me smile and proud to be an American.