Cross Talk: Wrong-Headed Rally Shows Misunderstanding About Rights

The government is not allowed to promote religion – even if a majority of people in a given community might support that religion – because, when it comes to your constitutional rights, our country does not operate by majority rule.

Over the weekend, there was a rally at the Mount Soledad cross near San Diego. Religious Right agitators, politicians and local residents met to express their disapproval of a recent federal appeals court decision holding that the 43-foot-tall religious symbol at a public park violates church-state separation.

Of course, people have the right to rally and make speeches about whatever topics they like. And I have the right to point out what they’ve got wrong. And in this case, that’s plenty.

Cross defenders seem to be laboring under main three misconceptions. Let’s take them one at a time:

The cross is a memorial for all of our war dead. Let’s put aside the fact that this cross existed for more than 30 years before government officials suddenly declared it a war memorial. The more pressing question is, does the central symbol of Christianity properly memorialize all war dead?

The answer is no. Yes, plenty of Christian men and women have died defending this country. They deserve to be honored. But so do the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans and others who have died in service to our nation. Despite what some misguided judges may think, the cross is not a secular symbol or a generalized icon for fallen soldiers. If that were the case, they would be used in Jewish and Islamic cemeteries: The reason they are not is that they don’t represent non-Christians.

Our nation was founded on Christianity, so government display of the cross is appropriate. During the rally, the Rev. Jim Garlow, a Newt Gingrich crony who pastors an evangelical church in San Diego, made an argument similar to this. Garlow asserted that the United States was “founded on distinct, Judeo-Christian, Biblical values” and insisted that the cross is meant to “recognize the uniqueness of our particular heritage, our particular history.”

If that were the case, Christianity and the cross would have received some sort of recognition in the Constitution and in our early national symbols. They do not. The United States was founded as a secular republic, one that respects all Americans’ right to practice the faith of their choosing (or no faith at all) but does not elevate any one religion above others.

The majority favors retaining the cross, so it should stay. This argument was heard over and over during the rally. It is fallacious. Majorities are quite capable of wanting things that are unconstitutional or poor public policy. For a long time, majorities believed African Americans were inferior and that women shouldn’t have certain rights.

Our Constitution places certain rights beyond the reach of the majority. The government is not allowed to promote religion – even if a majority of people in a given community might support that religion – because, when it comes to your constitutional rights, our country does not operate by majority rule.

This is a simple concept, but it’s exceedingly hard for some people to grasp.

The cross defenders have had their say, and now it’s time for this process to move forward. Unfortunately, some local politicians and members of Congress seem unwilling to accept any solution that involves moving the cross.

That’s too bad. The Mount Soledad Cross, like all crosses, is a representation of the Christian faith. It would look great in front of a church.