Aug 21, 2015

Fox News’ Todd Starnes is, as usual, displeased.

This time, it’s because of Americans United. Our legal team recently informed the town of Knoxville, Iowa, that they cannot display a sectarian veterans' memorial on public land. The memorial displays a soldier kneeling before a Latin cross, a symbol used most frequently by mainstream Catholic and Protestant denominations. No other religious symbols are displayed on the memorial, so it isn’t inclusive and that means it likely violates the First Amendment.

The resident who filed the complaint originally contacted town government directly with his concerns. Officials refused to act. In an interview with Starnes, Knoxville’s mayor, Brian Hatch, explained why.

“We didn’t take any action because it [the memorial] did not have any religious ties to us at all,” he told the columnist. “I only see it as a memorial to the veterans and it shocked me that someone could see it otherwise.”It’s a cross, mayor. It’s been a few years since I minored in Bible, but I recall that Jesus died on one. I have yet to walk into a church that does not prominently display one in remembrance of what is, to Christians, God’s ultimate sacrifice for humankind. It’s preposterous to claim that the cross lacks religious significance; it is particularly specious to do so in reference to a memorial that depicts a solider kneeling in prayer before it.

And yet, it seems like the mayor enjoys some local support. Activist Doug Goff told Starnes he’s organizing a rally later this month to “save” the cross.

“When we are bending to the will of one person in the town – you know something is wrong there,” he said. “The cross is white because the headstones in Arlington are white. Would you take that cross down, too?”

That moved Starnes to write, “I think Americans United should answer Mr. Goff’s question. Will they demand that Arlington Cemetery remove their crosses?”

Starnes is not a veteran, but Goff, who served in the Navy, should know better. He should already know that Arlington National Cemetery displays religious symbols on individual headstones from a variety of belief traditions – not just Christianity. Other than that, there are no displays of crosses at the cemetery.

Right-wing sites often feature a photo of a cemetery that depicts row after row of gleaming white crosses. Some of the people who circulate this image really believe that it depicts Arlington National Cemetery. If they were to actually visit Arlington, they would know better. The photo is from a cemetery in Europe.

So let me offer a friendly suggestion: If you’d like to know how to honor veterans, I suggest you take a look at the real Arlington National Cemetery as opposed to misattributed photos from Google Images. The only crosses there are displayed on the tombstones of Christian soldiers. There are also Stars of David, the Islamic star and crescent, and even an atomic symbol for atheists. (Yes, Mr. Starnes, atheists die for this country too.)

No one is going to sue Arlington because the government is doing the right thing there: It honors the sacrifice of all of our veterans by representing the true religious diversity of our armed forces. It leaves the matter to individual choice.

Of course, military officials have required some persuasion over the years to include everyone: In 2007, AU sued to have Wiccan pentacles displayed on tombstones. The Department of Veterans Affairs had previously denied a request for tombstones depicting the symbol. When they agreed to respect the First Amendment – and the deeply held beliefs of veterans – it was easy to settle the case out of court.

We do not act out of disrespect for veterans. Many members of staff have loved ones who served our country in various conflicts. And those loved ones aren’t all Christians. They, along with many of their brothers and sisters in arms, aren’t represented by memorials that display a Latin cross to the exclusion of all other religious symbols. That exclusion is the real disgrace.

So, Mr. Starnes, I’ve answered your question. Now I’d like you to answer mine: Are you trying to honor veterans, or Christianity?