When is a cross not a Christian symbol?

When is a cross not a Christian symbol?
© Supreme Court

When is a cross not a Christian symbol? When the Supreme Court says it isn't. 

Even as Michael Cohen dominated the news on Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments about a 40-foot cross on public land in Bladensburg, Md. The cross has been there nearly 100 years to commemorate the battlefield deaths of several scores of local World War I veterans, whose names are inscribed on the base of the cross.

The "peace cross," as it is called, erected in 1925, was challenged in 2014 by several local residents and the Washington-based American Humanist Association, who claimed its presence on public land violated the First Amendment's prohibition of the establishment of religion, examples of which are governmental sponsorship of religion or governmental actions in preference of one religion, here Christianity, over others. Their claim was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and it is that ruling which was appealed to the Supreme Court by the American Legion, an assortment of religious legal groups, and jurisdictions within the state of Maryland, with arguments held yesterday.


Our hunch is that the Supreme Court will later this term overturn the Appeals Court ruling, accepting the appellant’s argument that the monument does not violate the First Amendment because the "peace cross" is not a religious symbol but a secular, civic structure, memorializing those who are named on it, who died in the Great War. By declaring the purpose of the cross to be a non-religious, secular honoring of dead veterans, the court avoids wading into issues of the separation of church and state. But this strategic move to maintain the constitutionality of the obviously unconstitutional is not only illogical, it is demeaning to truly religious Christians for whom the cross and Christ's crucifixion is at the core of their religious conviction. To redefine and secularize the central Christian symbol is hurtful and insulting to the believing Christian. However, it is a recurring reflex of the federal judiciary today. 

Even God has no religious meaning in some important Court decisions. So it is that Justice Carlos Bea ruled in Newdow vs. RioLinda Union School Board in 2010 for the Ninth District Court (President TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE take notice) that the phrase "under God," inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, was constitutional. For eight years, the atheist activist Michael Newdow had roiled the American political scene with court challenges to God's presence in the Pledge as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.  

The Ninth Circuit had ruled in Newdow's favor in 2002, igniting a political firestorm across America. The Bush Administration appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which in 2004 declined to rule on the constitutionality of "under God" by citing lack of standing for Newdow. He brought another suit, which was successful in the District Court in 2007, but which the Ninth Circuit overruled in 2010, finally settling the issue.


Justice Bea held for the 2 to 1 circuit court majority that the phrase "under God" was not religious language but a civic invocation. It was not a spiritual reference but ceremonial, the way Americans emphasize important patriotic issues. To invoke God is a reference to what the Founders saw as the historical source of the rights and freedoms of Americans, not to invoke divine guidance or spiritual stewardship today. School children daily referring to a secularized, ceremonial, historicized God cannot be an unconstitutional establishment of religion, just as — so we assume the Supreme Court will decide — allowing a de-Christianized cross to be on public property does not have government privileging one religion over another.

How even more insulting to the truly religious is secularizing God than is redefining the cross. Secularists and strict church/state separationists like us often speak out critically about the inappropriateness of federal courts' legitimizing governmental violation of the Establishment Clause. What is surprising is that religious Americans don't complain about the offensive judicial logic used by Courts to do so.

Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, emeritus professors at Cornell University, are the authors of the recent book "Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheism in American Public Life."