Editor’s Note: The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case American Legion v. American Humanist Association Feb. 27. The case challenges government ownership and display of a 40-foot-tall cross in Bladensburg, Md. Erected in 1925, the cross was intended to be a war memorial for Maryland residents who fought in World War I. In 1985, it was rededicated to honor all veterans. The American Humanist Association is sponsoring the litigation challenging the religious structure’s display. (See “People & Events” for a report on the argument.)
Americans United maintains that a cross cannot represent all veterans. On the day of the oral argument, advocates of separation of church and state rallied outside the court to argue for symbols that include all.
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, was among the speakers. She delivered the following remarks:
(PHOTO: AU President & CEO Rachel Laser speaks outside the Supreme Court during the #HonorThemAll rally.)
Friends, let me share with you a direct quote from the highest court of our land: ‘The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.’
“As the United States becomes increasingly religiously diverse, that constitutional protection is more crucial than ever.
“The towering Bladensburg Latin Cross, embodying THE most universally familiar symbol of Christianity, was acquired, rededicated to ‘all’ veterans, and is maintained by the Montgomery and Prince George’s county local governments. It’s as clear-cut a case as they come of government preference for one religion over others.
“Intentional or not, this Latin cross memorial conveys the message that the Christians whose lives were lost are more deserving of respect, gratitude and remembrance than the many non-Christians who fought and died beside them.
“Sure, it’s easy to say that everybody really knows what the government means by that cross – that it’s a good enough symbol to acknowledge and honor all of our veterans and fallen soldiers. They say we should just let it go, it’s not a big deal, they didn’t mean to offend anyone, it’s always been that way.
“These arguments are oh-so-familiar to too many of us who are members of any minority group. And sadly, many of us have surrendered too many times to ‘norms’ being set that ignore us, fail to see us, fail to honor us, fail to include us and thus, that fail to give us the dignity we equally deserve.
“But we cannot afford to be complacent.
“If you believe in America, then you must hold her accountable to her defining principles and ideals. And if you peel back the layers and layers of our beautiful country, you know what you will find at its core? Religious freedom. And, as our Founding Fathers understood, the most surefire way to protect religious freedom for all is to separate religion and government.
“This has kept us unified and prevented dangerous religion-based divisions that are so destructive in many parts of the world. And it has preserved a key element of our freedom. The freedom to believe what we want or not to believe. A freedom that actually pays the highest respect to religion, because it ensures that we come to our beliefs purely and of our own accord.
“I am the first non-Christian to lead Americans United for Separation of Church and State in its 72-year history. I’m Jewish. I have family members who fought in World War II. To me, it’s painfully obvious that the Bladensburg Cross does not recognize the veterans in my family. To me, it’s inescapable that the Bladensburg Cross gives preference, even if unintentionally, to Christian veterans over non-Christians.
“Americans United calls upon the court to reaffirm the fundamental principle of religious freedom that ALL of our veterans, Christian and non-Christian alike, fought and died for.
“We call upon the court to Honor Them All.”