Did you hear about the story regarding the “Peace Cross” war memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland? The American Humanist Association sued the state claiming that it had no business posting a cross on public lands and maintaining it with public monies. The AHA claimed that the government was violating the separation of church and state by allowing this WWI memorial to stand. The American Legion then sued AHA, defending the right to allow the memorial to stand. In June the Supreme Court made the decision that the Peace Cross can remain standing, and that it is not a violation of the separation of church and state.
Sadly, though, its opinion does little to clear up confusion over what the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause” really means. The consensus around the decision is impressive and refreshing. Seven of the nine Justices agreed that the 32-foot, cross-shaped war memorial (constructed with private funds) should stay put at the terminus of the National Defense Highway. But their reasoning for allowing it to remain is that the cross memorial is more closely linked to World War I than to religious values. That kind of reasoning is causing confusion about what the Establishment Clause really means, and that kind of reasoning will continue to allow more lawsuits of this kind that seek to remove all things “Christian” from the public square.
One thing that the majority of Justices got right is that the removal of the Peace Cross memorial would not be seen by the public as an act of religious neutrality on the part of government, but it would be seen as an act of hostility toward religion. But are they correct in saying that the cross is more about remembering those who sacrificed their lives in WWI than about Christ who sacrificed himself on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins? Let’s admit it: Yes, the Peace Cross memorializes those who sacrificed their lives for American freedom, but the Cross ultimately points us to the Jesus who died there, and who gives forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life to those who have been united with him in faith and baptism, and who have died.
Today’s U.S. Supreme Court seems headed in the right direction. The purpose of the “separation of church and state” was to protect religious freedom by ensuring that the government could not coerce citizens to support a particular religious group. It wasn’t to ensure that non-believers are shielded from expressions of faith, rather, that they remain free to look away. Until the Supreme Court makes this clear, we can expect more of these misguided lawsuits.
Happy 4th of July!