Aug 13, 2010

For years, we’ve heard the Religious Right and its allies assert that the cross is a secular symbol, not a religious one, in order to get around the Constitution and keep Christian displays on public land.

We’ve always thought that argument was pretty ridiculous, but Religious Right activists keep trying. Here’s their latest proposal:  a cross is not a religious symbol, it’s a tourist attraction.

That’s the claim made by Friends of the Cross (FOTC),  a group that received a $20,000 state grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to restore an 11-story cross on Bald Knob Mountain near Alto Pass, Ill.  FOTC, which is the caretaker of the Bald Knob Cross, argues the display deserves  funding from the government because it’s a tourist draw, not a religious symbol.

Yeah, right. Not only is that argument legally dubious, it’s also deeply offensive to many devout Christians who see the cross as sacred and a central symbol of their faith.

Rob Sherman, an Illinois activist, has called FOTC out. He filed a lawsuit yesterday asking the court to force the group to return the funds. Restoring the cross, he argues, advances the religious mission of Bald Knob Cross of Peace, Inc., which has a primarily sectarian purpose. Both the U.S. and Illinois constitutions prevent government funds from being used to support a religious belief.

Disputes over the role of religious symbols in public life are brewing in other parts of the world, too.

In Poland, for example, a cross was erected outside the presidential palace in April, after a plane crash killed 95 people, including former President Lech Kaczynski. Newly elected president, Bronislaw Komorowski, wants the cross removed.

Komorowski is supported by Poles who believe in church-state separation and say the cross should be moved to a church. Poland is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, however, and traditionalists calling themselves “defenders of the cross” are battling to prevent its removal. Vigils, demonstrations and scuffles with police have ensued. (To their credit, Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz and other bishops called on Poles not to make the religious symbol the object of political disputes. They asked that the cross be moved to a nearby church.)

In Italy, meanwhile, display of crucifixes in public schools has been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. The dispute is now before an appeals court, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

In November, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that posting a symbol of the Catholic faith violates the religious freedom rights of non-Catholic students.  The decision provoked a bitter debate in Italy and elsewhere around Europe.

TV preacher Pat Robertson’s European Centre for Law and Justice has filed documents with the appeals court in support of the crucifixes, and the court heard oral arguments in Lautsi v. Italy in June.

These examples show just how much unrest and unhappiness can erupt when government embraces sectarian symbols.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to observe the separation of religion and government and avoid these deeply divisive conflicts from the start?

Let government display national and patriotic symbols that include everyone, and let houses of worship and other private entities display the symbols of faith.

It would save us a lot of trouble, not only in keeping these disputes at bay, but also in preventing the government from picking and choosing which religious symbols “deserve” official imprimatur.

Bottom line: this is a matter of fundamental rights and human decency. There’s no need to impose one religion’s symbols on a nation that welcomes people of all faith backgrounds, as well as non-believers.  It violates the rights of minorities and it pits adherents of one faith against their neighbors who don’t share that faith.

All of us have the right to display whatever we would like on our private land. But public property should belong to everyone.