The First Amendment to the United States Constitution includes the simple words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This sentence is commonly referred to as the Establishment Clause. It has been used again and again to argue against government support of religious institutions or doctrines.
It will undoubtedly be used again in Salazar v. Buono, one of the fifty-plus cases to be heard during the 2009-10 term of the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened last week.
In Salazar v. Buono, the Court will have to decide whether a crucifix erected on government property violates the Establishment Clause. The eight-foot-tall cross, a war memorial, has stood in the Mojave Desert since 1934.
The case has already been heard in several lower courts. The result has always been the same. Each court has consistently ruled that the crucifix must be removed from the site. The only reason we’re still talking about the “Mojave Cross” is that loopholes are constantly being exploited to keep it standing. While the Republican congressional majority governed during the 1990s, the government transferred the land to a private group of veterans for the express purpose of keeping the cross there.
Before going any further, it is important to point out a few things about the site itself. First of all, the government never gave initial permission to erect the cross at all. Secondly, the cross has been replaced several times, most recently in 1998. Third, the government has denied several requests from non-Christian religious groups to put their own religious symbols on federal property — most recently by denying a similar request by a Buddhist group in 1999.
Should the cross be taken down? Of course it should be. It is against the Constitution for the government to favor a specific religion, and in the case of the Mojave Cross, the government is doing just that.
Clearly, we live in a nation in which Christianity is the religion of the majority. Judeo-Christian ethical principles have certainly been vital to the foundation of some of our most important laws. But there is a fundamental difference between being “a nation populated mostly by Christians,” and being “a Christian nation.” We are the former, but we are not the latter. It would be one thing to allow everyone to erect religious displays on government property, but to favor one religion over others violates the Establishment Clause.
In truth, I don’t think an eight-foot-tall cross in the middle of the desert is really that important in my personal life. Whether it stands or falls, I’m still getting the same amount of sleep each night. I could not care less about the cross itself. But what does bother me is the blurring of the line between church and state. Government endorsement of one religion over others is a regressive policy that alienates many Americans.
The most recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that 16 percent of Americans are not religious and over 20 percent are not Christian. This pluralism is a vital part of the American identity and experience. When we legitimize the beliefs of one group, while refusing to legitimize the beliefs of other groups, we are respecting an establishment of religion. We are also ignoring the valuable contributions of all religions, which are beneficial to everyone.
Many Americans consider the common church-state issues to be relatively unimportant. Whether it be the legality of endorsing God on our currency, referring to God in our Pledge of Allegiance or erecting crucifixes on federal land, many people simply don’t care one way or another. I think they should care, because there is more at stake than just coins and crosses.
When we let one religion have its way whenever it wants, we contribute to a tone of apathy that damages our entire framework of government. When we elect politicians because they believe certain things about God that we like, we undermine our political process. This all leads to more victories for the Christian majority, whether the issues at stake are gay rights, abortion policies, stem cell research funding or the teaching of evolution to our children. When those with dissenting opinions don’t speak up about it, part of the blame for “the way things are” falls upon them.
Salazar v. Buono is a small case with relatively insignificant direct consequences. I’ve never seen the Mojave Cross, and I don’t like the desert climate enough to change that. But I recognize that while this one small case doesn’t affect me, the larger issue of church-state separation does. Let’s hope our highest court upholds the Bill of Rights by finally getting rid of the cross in the desert.
Charles Hicks is third-year religious studies major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed Under: Opinion