I was in Southern California last weekend speaking to Americans United’s Orange County Chapter. While I was in the area, I took a few days off to visit a friend who lives in San Diego and see some sights.

One of the places I visited was Cabrillo National Monument. The site commemorates the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing under the Spanish flag who in 1542 became the first European to set foot in what is now California.

The monument contains a statue of Cabrillo that’s topped with a cross. That’s not surprising since Cabrillo, like most conquistadors of that age, came in part to spread the Catholic faith – although “impose” might be a more accurate word.

The site explains all of this, so the presence of the cross makes sense, even though this park is owned by the federal government. Context, it seems, does matter. The message conveyed by the cross in this case is plainly historical, not religious.

Context is exactly what’s missing in some of the recent squabbles over religious symbols on public property. Consider the Bladensburg Cross. The Supreme Court said Maryland’s state and local government may continue to own and display the 40-foot-tall Latin cross in part because it’s been there since 1925 and is historic.

If that’s really the case, then what the cross needs is some context – chiefly, information that explains its history. The cross does contain a plaque explaining that it was erected as a war memorial, but there’s nothing that outlines its subsequent history. Because there are no historical markers or explanatory material at the site, the cross suddenly just appears at a busy intersection. It’s obviously not part of a church so a casual observer might rightly wonder why it is there and conclude that it represents a Christian community. Historical markers would address that problem.

For all of their bluster about much they love the Bladensburg Cross, the fact is that state and local politicians allowed it to fall into disrepair. The top is covered with a tarp to keep out water, and the arms are supported by struts.

Presumably, now that the high court has said that the cross can remain where it is, government officials will make repairs. But they should do more than that. The addition of plaques that detail the history of the cross and explain that it was originally put up by a private group on private land would go a long way toward mitigating the appearance that the state of Maryland and Prince George’s County have endorsed the Christian faith. (The material could even make it clear that a religious symbol like this, while it might have seemed an appropriate war memorial in 1925, would not be so today.)

The Supreme Court’s decision upholding government ownership of the Bladensburg Cross was unfortunate, but it doesn’t have to be the last word. State and local officials now have the opportunity to transform this site into one that educates, explains and enlightens. Let’s hope they take it.

(Photo: Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego)