As I noted yesterday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in a case challenging government ownership and display of a 40-foot-tall cross in Bladensburg, Md.
Defenders of the cross assert that it’s a war memorial meant to honor those who served during World War I. Americans United and other groups counter that a Latin cross, the central symbol of the Christian faith, cannot and does not memorialize non-Christians.
I understand that emotions are running high over this case. That always happens in legal disputes like this. But I would hope that our discussion of the matter could be grounded in reason, facts and mutual respect.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening because some groups advocating for the cross are making outrageous, lurid and untrue claims.
Consider this comment by Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute:
“The real problem here is that if this decision is allowed to stand, not only does this memorial have to be altered, desecrated or destroyed – it will send a bulldozer across the country, starting first at Arlington National Cemetery.”
Nope. Not gonna happen. It’s not even close to the truth.
We’ve been through this before, but let’s explain once again why Arlington National Cemetery won’t be affected no matter what happens in the Bladensburg case.
At Arlington (and other federal cemeteries for veterans), the family members of deceased veterans choose an appropriate symbol to adorn the headstone or grave marker to honor that man or woman. Their decision affects no one else.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs tries hard to be inclusive and respectful of all beliefs. It maintains a list of approved symbols. The list contains several types of crosses but also encompasses symbols representing Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Humanism, etc. (Americans United knows a lot about this process because, in 2007, we fought successfully in court to expand the list to include the symbol of Wicca.)
The point is, each headstone or grave marker in question at Arlington represents an individual. That man or woman’s family chooses a symbol that best represents the faith (or non-faith) held by that specific person. There is no claim that the cross (or whatever symbol is chosen) stands for anyone other than the person buried that grave.
Contrast that to the Bladensburg Cross, a solitary structure which, we are told, memorializes every man and woman who fought in World War I. Yet we know that it does not. It can’t because many of those people were not Christians.
Claims about bulldozers running amok all over Arlington National Cemetery are scare tactics, plain and simple. Dys and his fellow far-right attorneys surely know that, but they don’t care. Their goal is to alarm people and whip up hysteria, not accurately portray what this case is all about.
In addition, it’s quite possible – even likely – that if the high court rules that the Bladensburg Cross is a violation of the First Amendment, it won’t be torn down. In past cases dealing with religious symbols on government property, the issue has been resolved by selling the symbol and the land around it to private entities.
The Bladensburg Cross case raises serious issues that are worthy of debate – chief among them, how we can properly honor all of our country’s veterans. But that debate must be driven by facts. We can’t have it if our opponents insist on spreading lies and hysteria.