Religious Minorities

‘History and tradition’ should not provide a cover for government support of religion

  Rhys Long

More than 50 years after it was erected, a towering Christian cross has been removed from Albany Hill Park in Albany, Calif. It was originally erected on private property, which later became public – although the Lions Club, the group that erected the cross, was granted an easement to maintain the cross installation. A complicated legal dispute is underway to determine whether the land upon which the cross was placed can legally be taken by the city through eminent domain, and the cross has been taken down until the matter can be adjudicated.

Kevin Pope, president of the Albany Lions Club, criticized the city’s decision as a waste of money, saying “There’s a lot of people who love it being up there” and that people who don’t like the cross should simply not look at it.

Pope’s lack of legal defense for the cross reveals one of the main points used by Christian Nationalists in defending religious interferences in the secular sphere: tradition and history. According to Pope, the fact that the cross is there and that some folks like it, is reason enough for the religious symbol to stay. But history is not a legal defense for unconstitutional practices, and tradition does not translate to constitutionality. For example, legislative prayers, despite their history and tradition, remain, as far as AU is concerned, violations of church-state separation – a long history of the practice should not justify the practice on its own, just as the cross remaining up for 50 years does not make it legal.

No oppression here

In addition to appeals to history and tradition, religious extremists often shout “oppression” or “intolerance” when church-state separation is effectively enforced. Let me clarify this point: rectifying religious overreach is not tantamount to oppression – it is the opposite. Mayor Aaron Tiedman put this well when he said, “When you’ve had such privilege for so long, losing it feels like being oppressed.”

He’s right. The Albany Lions Club believes it has a right to keep the cross on public property and that removing it is a form of discrimination against Christians. But that is simply not true; removing the cross is actually enforcing a neutral standard to which all religions are held.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court may believe differently, Americans United is firm in saying that no religion should have the right to have a symbol of its faith permanently displayed on public land at taxpayer expense, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or another faith.

Allowing such displays would send a message of endorsement, which ought to be considered unconstitutional. Everyone has a right to feel comfortable and accepted in this country. Government-backed public religious displays cut against that very idea.

Photo: A cross on public land in Bladensburg, Md.

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