The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Salazar v. Bouno yesterday. The case revolves around a cross erected as a war memorial in the Mojave Desert that sits on federal land although the cross was first put up by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a non-governmental organization. This is the first time the Roberts court has examined a First Amendment case that centers on the prohibition contained therein that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
As is usual in such cases, the worst possible conclusions were those drawn by Justice Antonin Scalia. He asserted that the cross was "the common symbol of the resting place of the dead." As the Washington Post reports, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, Peter Eliasberg, countered, "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is no cross on a tombstone of a Jew." The remark drew laughter, but not from Scalia.
The poverty of Scalia’s argument is obvious. He wishes to gut Christian symbols of their Christian meaning in order to justify their deployment by government. It is strange to think that it was the ACLU lawyer who had to remind the court that the cross "signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind from our sins." Scalia would empty the cross of this its primary meaning in order to sneak it into the Mojave National Park. Regular readers know that one of my – and one of Pope Benedict’s – concerns is the reduction of religion to ethics but Scalia proposes the reduction of religion to symbols stripped of their meaning. He is, in the strict sense of the term, an iconoclast in robes.
Someone the other day called in on a radio show to ask if the ACLU wanted to tear down all the crosses in Arlington National Cemetary. Actually, the graves at Arlington are not marked by crosses but by tombstones and those buried there, or their next of kin, choose which of several religious symbols they would like carved into the tombstone. The only crosses that mark graves in Arlington are the two that mark the younger Kennedy brothers, Bobby and Ted. But, the caller did not recognize what the Court must recognize. There is a difference between someone choosing a religious symbol for themselves, to have a cross or a star of David or a Muslim crescent as a sign of identity on one’s own grave and quite another thing when the government chooses one of those symbols to represent the loss of soldiers from many faiths. A Jew or a Muslim can be forgiven for looking at the cross and seeing something other than a promise of future salvation.
What role should religion play in the public square and how can we bring the cross of Christ into that square in a way that does not offend the Constitution nor the integrity of our faith? Every Good Friday, Communione e Liberazione sponsors a Stations of the Cross where hundreds traverse the Brooklyn Bridge. This, not Justice Scalia’s cross as all-purpose death symbol, is how we bring Christ to the culture. Sometimes we must carry the cross on the Brooklyn Bridge. Sometimes, we carry the cross with our older family members in the hospital or a nursing home by visiting them and alleviating some of the loneliness of old age. Sometimes, we carry the cross by giving a little bit more to the collection on Sunday, more than we can really afford. To capture the scandal of the cross, visit the imprisoned: Not many care about them in our vengeful society. There are countless ways to carry the cross that do not involve trampling on the First Amendment nor gutting our most precious symbol of its specific, historical meaning. When Scalia retires, the Supreme Court will be a more sensible place.