Cross Clarification: Appeals Court Rules That Central Symbol Of Christianity Does Not Represent All War Dead

Serious Christians ought to be the first ones to be alarmed by the notion that their most sacred symbol is on the verge of being co-opted by the government

A federal appeals court yesterday ruled that a 43-foot cross atop Mt. Soledad near San Diego is an example of government favoritism toward one religion and is thus unconstitutional.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but, incredibly, this case has been knocking around in the courts for two decades. More remarkably, a lower court ruled in 2008 that the cross is a secular symbol that memorializes all war dead.

You read that right: A federal court actually ruled that the cross, the central symbol of the Christian faith, conveys a secular message and represents all deceased veterans.

Yesterday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Trunk and Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America v. City of San Diego pushes that offensive ruling aside. In its 50-page decision, the court examined the history of the Mt. Soledad cross, noting that it was first erected in a public park in 1913 for clearly religious purposes, not as a war memorial.

The cross was replaced in the 1920s, but the replacement cross blew down in 1952. Two years later, the current concrete cross was erected, again with obvious religious motivations: “to create a park worthy of this magnificent view, and worthy to be a setting for the symbol of Christianity.”

It was only in the late 1980s, when the cross became the subject of litigation, that public officials suddenly decided that the area is a war memorial. They added a few plaques to the site, but that hardly mitigates the effect of the towering cross looming over the hill.

Judge M. Margaret McKeown saw right through this ruse. “More fundamentally, this war memorial – with its imposing Cross – stands as an outlier among war memorials, even those incorporating crosses,” McKeown wrote for the court. “Contrary to any popular notion, war memorials in the United States have not traditionally included nor centered on the cross and, according to the parties’ evidence, there is no comparable memorial on public land in which the cross holds such a pivotal and imposing stature, dwarfing by every measure the secular plaques and other symbols commemorating veterans.”

Continued McKeown, “The use of such a distinctively Christian symbol to honor all veterans sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion. It suggests that the government is so connected to a particular religion that it treats that religion’s symbolism as its own, as universal.”

Exactly.

This case has a long, convoluted history. Politicians have weighed in, and attempts were made to transfer the land beneath the cross first to a private entity and then to the federal government. (You can read more about the case here.) The bottom line is simple: Men and women of many different faiths and philosophies have died protecting our country. The cross does not – and indeed cannot – memorialize them all.

The idea of the cross as a secular symbol seems to be growing. Even some Supreme Court justices have adopted the idea. But it’s patent nonsense, and serious Christians ought to be the first ones to be alarmed by the notion that their most sacred symbol is on the verge of being co-opted by the government.

As Americans United put it in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, “That the cross is used in a veterans’ memorial here does not make it secular. In fact, as a burial marker, the cross has been used almost exclusively for Christian burials in order to convey a sectarian message that the deceased lived and died as a member of a particular Christian community. And as a monument in a veterans’ memorial, the cross conveys a similar sectarian message: that only fallen Christian soldiers are being remembered. Given the ‘commanding presence’ of the Mt. Soledad cross in relation to the rest of the memorial, the primary message that this cross communicates is religious, not secular.”

Unfortunately, the appeals court did not order that the cross be removed. Instead, it left the door open to further modifications of the site. I’m having a hard time seeing how that could be done. Adding a series of 43-foot-tall symbols of other religions (and non-religions) is hardly practical.

The answer is to move the cross to private property. I’m sure plenty of churches in the area would like to have it. Once that’s done, public officials in Southern California should get to work transforming the Mt. Soledad site into a proper war memorial that honors all of our brave veterans – not just those who happen to be Christian.