The Supreme Court ruled on June 20 in The American Legion et al. v. the American Humanist Association et al.” that the “Bladensburg Cross” standing 40 feet tall outside of Bladensburg, Maryland can remain on public property without violating the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.
Bereaved mothers collected funds following World War 1 to build the cross dedicated in 1925 to honor the memories of 49 local men who died in the war. When they ran out of money, the American Legion took responsibility for the cross. In the 1930s a local park commission assumed responsibility for its care.
The cross is in need of over $100,000 in repair which is not in the park commission’s budget. The American Humanist Association challenged the placement of the cross on public property as a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, insisting it either be moved to private property or be replaced with a non-religious symbol honoring the soldiers who lost their lives.
Writing for the majority, Justice Alito wrote, “Despite the fact that the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts,” that “does not change the fact that the symbol took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials.”
In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg wrote, “The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’”
I’m deeply troubled by the Court’s decision. The state Supreme Court’s decision cheapens the central Christian symbol, depriving it of its potency. The decision illustrates why Martin Luther called for a separation of the church and state; the state will corrupt the church.
It was some 60 days ago, on Good Friday, when we stood below the cross in church and in lament borrowed the words of William Eleazar, an enslaved African-American and sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord, Were you there when they nailed him to the cross, O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!” We also sang, “Upon the cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see the very dying form of One who suffered there for me.”
John 3:16 is a favorite Bible verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The word translated as “believes” comes from the Greek “Pisteo” which is not simply a mental exercise but as Angela Zimmann writes, “an all-embracing relationship, an attitude of love and trust in God.”
The cross speaks of an “all-embracing relationship, an attitude of love and trust in God,” not to be trivialized as a cutesy decorative piece for a municipal park, not to be confiscated and used as secular wallpaper or allowed to be stripped of the power it causes a believer to “tremble, tremble, tremble.” Justice Ginsberg is correct, the cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith” it is suffering and defeat, it is triumph and salvation.
Ann Wroe wrote of the cross, “I don’t believe it shouldn’t be a piece of jewellery (sic). But if you have either no idea why it’s important, or if you simply want to wear it because it looks nice with that particular dress, that’s appalling to me, because there’s a huge cosmic significance in the subject.”
“Otherwise, you may as well just wear a gibbet round your neck, or an electric chair. And in fact if you look back at the history of the cross – that is what you’re doing. So it has to mean something a good deal more than that to be something tolerable at all.”
The Supreme Court’s decision, I believe, was wrong; we will live with it. Nevertheless, let us as believers continue to see in the cross “an all-embracing relationship, an attitude of love and trust in God.” For us, as St. Paul writes, the message of the cross is “the power of God” (1st Corinthians 1:18).