Editor’s Note: This post by Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine. To subscribe and get Church & State delivered to your door every month, become a member of AU.
Twenty-five years ago, I tied the knot with my wonderful husband Mark. For our honeymoon, we hiked the Grand Canyon and then spent a little time in Santa Fe, N.M., enchanted by the desert and mountains and inspired by the work of artists like Georgia O’Keefe.
Since AU is still working virtually, Mark and I decided to road trip across the country with our dog, Teddy, and come back to Santa Fe for a 25th anniversary “workcation.”
During our drive through the South, we passed several large crosses and countless billboards inviting a text or call to find Jesus. After 28 hours on the road, we finally arrived in Santa Fe to a Christian band playing in the town square. (Not a legal problem as long as it’s public land that all groups – religious and non-religious – have a right to use.)
Next, it was time to see the house we rented. It is lovely, but it turned out to have multiple crosses on multiple walls. I tried to add yellow stickies with crude drawings of a variety of other religious symbols, but sadly they soon fell down. At first, I took the crosses down for my Zoom calls, but now I just leave them up and use my background to teach about what church-state separation doesn’t reach (private rental homes or private land) and to highlight what it’s like to be a religious minority in America.
I feel conflicted about criticizing private religious symbols and displays that are part of places intended to be shared with the public. On the one hand, the “Jesus saves” signs are instruments of proselytism, which groups have every right to do if it’s on private land and privately funded.
On the other hand, those in the religious majority should make an effort to be more inclusive. That starts by not assuming that everyone is Christian. So, for example, if you are renting your home to tourists who inevitably come from a variety of belief systems, try harder to decorate accordingly.
When it comes to government displaying preferred religious symbols on public property, however, that’s just wrong and a violation of the separation of church and state. It seems so obvious to me, but we are facing more of a battle on this than I wish we were.
Remember in 2019 when the Supreme Court decided that the government could keep and maintain a 40-foot towering cross on public land in Bladensburg, Md.? Justice Samuel A. Alito audaciously claimed that the cross has taken on a secular meaning. Never for this Jew – nor, I imagine, for others who are religious minorities or nonreligious! As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her dissent: “To non-Christians … the State’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they ‘are outsiders, not full members of the political community.’”
Like the Court, public opinion is also not where it should be. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that 39% of respondents said they believe cities and towns should be allowed to display religious symbols on public property, just 35% oppose this and the rest (26%) have no opinion.
What does this all mean for AU’s work? Our lawyers will continue to send letters in response to your complaints about government symbols and displays when we believe they represent a constitutional violation. (Sometimes we can resolve the matter without going to court.) At the same time, we will focus our legal resources where we can either best win or mitigate loss and where we can stop concrete harm to people.
AU will also relentlessly build allies, because we know most people are on our side. That same Pew poll demonstrated that most Americans — even in red states — support church-state separation, and, importantly, reject the central tenets of Christian nationalism, such as the idea that the Constitution was inspired by God or that the federal government should advocate Christian values.
On our drive back to D.C., I’m going to try a new exercise. Every time I see a symbol or sign that represents just one religious viewpoint, I’m going to pause and think of you all and your dedication to making America a country that makes good on its promise of religious freedom. In the long run, one step – or mile – at a time, we’re going to succeed.