Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Latin cross dishonors freethinking veterans

Vol. 36 No. 02 March 2019
The fate of the 40-foot cross in Bladensburg, Md., will be decided by the Supreme Court. FFRF has filed a friend-of-the-court brief backing the American Humanist Association’s case to have it removed. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A huge Christian cross on public land in Maryland is massively disrespectful to nonreligious Americans, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and four other secular groups are contending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The friend-of-the-court brief in support of the American Humanist Association’s case before the Supreme Court was filed Jan. 30 by FFRF, the Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, and the Secular Coalition for America.

The Supreme Court will be holding oral arguments on Feb. 27 in the challenge of a major 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals victory that the American Humanist Association obtained in October 2017. The appeals court affirmed that a mega-cross, which was erected as a war memorial in Bladensburg, Md., is unconstitutional. It held that the 40-foot-tall cross “excessively entangles the government in religion” because the cross is the “core symbol of Christianity” and “breaches” the constitutional wall dividing state and church. The petitioners challenging this ruling are the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the American Legion.

The Supreme Court needs to keep in mind the rights and sensibilities of the large disbelieving portion of the U.S. population while making its decision, the secular groups urge in their joint amicus brief. As secular and humanist organizations that promote freedom of conscience for those who do not practice religion, the groups’ brief offers a unique viewpoint on government display of religious symbols and the exclusion of religious minorities and nonbelievers.

The government’s use of prominent religious symbols serves to stigmatize, marginalize and diminish that large portion of citizens who exercise their constitutional right not to believe or practice a religion. These same trends are present in the U.S. military. In 2017, more than 30 percent of the active duty population of the American military did not affiliate with any religion. The five secular groups note that those soldiers risk their lives to defend our country. So, when we purport to honor them, why would we do so in a manner that disrespects their nonbelief?

“The ‘First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,’” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court, the brief observes.

The brief asks the court to imagine if the shoe were on the other foot: A Christian who takes for granted being surrounded by Latin crosses and other Christian symbols might well think twice about seeing an Islamic crescent or Wiccan pentangle or atheist atom on a prominent government building, display or monument, especially one purporting to honor the sacrifice of those with different religious views.

When deciding whether the Establishment Clause permits the government to use the Latin cross to collectively honor fallen soldiers, the historical practices of the U.S. military reveal that the military has scrupulously avoided using sectarian symbols, such as Latin crosses, to mark the graves of soldiers who practice a different religion.

The secular groups write: “This understanding requires no logical leap: A Latin cross is unmistakably ‘the preeminent symbol of Christianity,’” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. solicitor general and others are asking the court to disregard the harm to nonbelievers from the government’s use of Christian symbols, arguing that there cannot be an Establishment Clause violation without a showing of coercion.

Establishment Clause principles have long prevented government from stigmatizing nonbelievers. And those principles are particularly salient today, because tens of millions of Americans identify with no religion.

That’s why FFRF and four other like-minded organizations are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the ruling of the 4th Circuit. A judgment to the contrary would dishonor the innumerable soldiers without belief who have fought and died for our nation.