The U.S. Supreme Court June 20 ruled that a 40-foot-tall cross on public land in Bladensburg, Md., may stay where it is, in part because the cross, erected in 1925, has been up so long that the justices believe it has taken on secular meaning.
We’re already seeing fallout from the American Legion v. American Humanist Association ruling – and it’s not good.
Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that a prominent cross on the county seal of Lehigh County, Pa., may remain. The seal, which was designed about 75 years ago, features other symbols such as farm implements and a factory, but the cross dominates. It certainly sends the impression that Lehigh County is a Christian community.
None of this mattered to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The Lehigh County seal fits comfortably within a long tradition of State and municipal seals and flags throughout our Republic that include religious symbols or mottos, which further confirms its constitutionality,” the court declared. “It also abided over 70 years without complaint.”
Ironically, in its own decision, the court discussed the history of the seal, which makes it clear it was adopted for a religious purpose. The court noted that the seal was designed in 1944 by Commissioner Harry D. Hertzog, who later said, “In center of Shield appears the huge cross in canary-yellow signifying Christianity and the God-fearing people which are the foundation and backbone of our County.”
What does that say about everyone in the county who’s not God-fearing or Christian? It tells them they’re not the foundation, they’re not the backbone. The law may require that they be tolerated, but we know the kind of people who are first and foremost in Lehigh County – Christians.
The court also bought into one of the key claims of the Bladensburg ruling: that a cross, despite it being the central symbol of Christianity, can somehow take on secular meaning over time. It’s an assertion that should alarm religious people most of all. Apparently, their most sacred religious symbols can become non-religious if enough time passes.
Americans United filed a court brief in this case on behalf of 20 organizations, including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, non-theistic and Christian groups. We pointed out that the government’s use of a Christian symbol endorses that faith and sends a message of exclusion to non-Christians.
“When government employs the primary symbol of one religion for its official insignia, it communicates an impermissible message of favoritism and exclusion that stigmatizes nonadherents while also demeaning the faith that it endorses,” observed the AU brief.
That would seem to be an obvious point. It’s unfortunate that the courts have decided to turn a blind eye toward it.