Muslim Wire

Crossing the line

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 20, 2009

The Supreme Court has a number of  interesting and important cases to decide in this upcoming session. One of those cases, Salazar v. Buono, addresses the issue of a cross erected on government property in the Mojave Desert. The case was brought to court by a Christian who worked for the National Park Service and found the cross to be an explicit endorsement of the Christian faith on public property. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” To circumvent the illegality of allowing a cross to be built upon public land, Congress transferred ownership of the land to a local veterans’ group. But this action occurred after the court refused a Buddhist’s request that he erect a Buddhist shrine near the cross. The combination of the refusal to allow a Buddhist shrine to be erected on the property and the transfer of the property to private hands demonstrates an act of bad faith on the part of the government. The Court must side with Buono in declaring the cross as an illegal establishment of religion in order to set a precedent which bars religious icons from appearing on public property in preference to other religious icons.

The Mojave Cross has a long history. The Veterans of Foreign Wars erected the cross in 1934 without government permission. The cross has been rebuilt twice since. In 1999, a Buddhist approached the National Park Service and asked to erect a Buddhist shrine near the cross, but his request was refused. In 2003, in order to circumvent the illegality of the cross, Congress attempted to transfer ownership of the land to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but this action was rejected by a federal appeals court. The history of the cross shows that the federal government appears rather complacent when a Christian icon is on display on public property, but when presented with a challenge to either allow other religious icons or to take down the cross, the government seems keen to preserve the religious symbol. This is an obvious violation of the establishment clause.

As pointed out during the case’s opening debate, there are many pieces of public land which contain religious symbols. For example, Arlington National Cemetery is full of tombstones in the shape of crosses. The difference is that there are tombstones that take the shape of many other religious symbols, including the Star of David. In fact, one can choose from 39 different styles of tombstone in Arlington National. The issue in this case is not solely that there is a cross on public property, but that there is a cross and no chance for any other religious beliefs to be represented in conjunction with that cross.

Proponents of the maintenance of the cross claim that it does not explicitly endorse Christianity or overshadow the beliefs of war veterans other than Christians. Justice Antonin Scalia stated, “It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead.” I’m sure the intention of those who erected the war memorial was not to disregard or disgrace non-Christian veterans, but unless I missed the part of Judaism, Islam, and all the other religions where their Messiah was nailed to a cross, I’m fairly certain that a cross is an explicitly Christian symbol. The ideal would be to have a war memorial that reflects the common beliefs of the war dead: that they were proud to serve their country and that they fought in the name of liberty and equality. But if veterans wish to erect religious symbols to honor the war dead, they must allow members of all faiths to set up religious symbols, not just Christians.

This case is not about trying to tear down Christianity, but to make the government accountable for its establishment of religion via allowing the cross to be built while simultaneously refusing other religious symbols to be built in conjunction with it. The circumstances would be the exact same if the government allowed only a Star of David to be built and refused other religious symbols to be built next to it. And as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Peter Eliasberg (the attorney arguing for the Park Service worker who filed the lawsuit) have stated, there is probably a legal channel through which the government could work to secure the land for a transfer to private hands and avoid violation of the First Amendment. If the land is in private hands, then there is no reason that a cross cannot be erected to honor war dead. The issue is not about trying to tear down a cross, but to hold the government accountable for its actions. A government that shows preference for one religion over another is a government that does not reflect the ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy.

Michael Khavari’s column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at m.khavari@cavalierdaily.com.

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