An unpleasant situation is unfolding in a small town in east Texas called Coldspring. The town is the county seat for San Jacinto County, and the courthouse there has four white crosses in its upper windows that are usually lit up during the Christmas season. A local resident complained, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to officials about the matter.
In a remarkable display of immaturity, the officials responded by illuminating the crosses, which would normally be dark at this time of year, and boasting about it on social media.
To make matters worse, many residents in the town of about 900 are not reacting well to the complaint. A minister in the area suggested that people who don’t like the crosses should inhale carbon monoxide.
Another resident, David Blevins, told a Houston television station, “If it offends them, close your eyes when you go by. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.”
We hear that one a lot during disputes over government displays of religious symbols. People are told to go out of their way, close their eyes or otherwise just avoid the symbol.
On a practical level, this advice has some problems. Often, the symbols are so prominently displayed that they’re hard to ignore. In Coldspring, the crosses are on the courthouse. People often have business at courthouses. Maybe they’ve been summoned for jury duty, perhaps they drive by every day or they might work in or near there.
More to the point, people shouldn’t have to avert their eyes. Religious symbols aren’t supposed to be at the seat of government to begin with. Some people have difficulty grasping the fact that it’s not so much the literal symbol that’s the problem – it’s the message it sends.
Illuminated crosses on the courthouse send the message of “Christian” courts, religion-based justice and a system of law and order that’s intertwined with the faith of the majority. That’s inappropriate. In allegorical representations of Justice, the figure is wearing a blindfold for a reason: The legal system is not supposed to take your appearance, your status in the community, your profession, your faith or other personal aspects about you into account. Everyone is supposed to get a fair shake. (That’s the ideal, anyway.)
When large, illuminated crosses adorn a courthouse, the message sent is clear: This community has a favorite religion, and here it is. If you belong to this faith, we in the government think well of you. If not, well, you’re taking your chances.
Telling people to avert their gaze does nothing to dispel that message. Even when you can’t see them, the crosses – and the message of favoritism toward some and exclusion toward others that they project – are still there.
Officials in San Jacinto County need to remove the crosses. But that’s just the first step. The second (and more important) action is for them to embrace an old-fashioned idea called equal justice for all.
P.S. You can report church-state violations to Americans United here.
(Photo: Screenshot from KPRC-TV, Houston)