Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged the Supreme Court to overturn a congressional scheme to maintain a cross on public land in California, insisting that government should refrain from displaying sectarian symbols.
Americans United made the argument in a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday in Salazar v. Buono, a legal battle centering on the display of a cross at the Mojave National Preserve in California. The case will come before the high court Oct. 7.
The cross at issue in the dispute was originally erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1934 and has since been replaced several times by private citizens.
“The cross is a powerful symbol of the Christian faith,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It does not represent all Americans. Arguing that the cross is ‘non-sectarian’ or that it is a generic symbol for all war dead is offensive to non-Christians and many Christians as well.”
In 2003, Congress approved riders to a Defense Department bill declaring the cross a “national memorial” and mandating a land exchange that would transfer the cross and the property beneath it to private hands. Lynn said this was an obvious ploy designed to keep the Christian symbol in place.
Lynn noted that a request by another citizen to display a Buddhist symbol in the area was denied. This is evidence, he continued, of unconstitutional government favoritism toward one religion.
AU’s brief asserts, “Government-sponsored religious symbols are potent forms of speech that can have real, palpable effects on people who are subjected to them.
“The harm from them is not that they evoke distaste, displeasure, or even disgust,” the brief continues. “It is that they deprive citizens of the use and enjoyment of public lands, because using a public facility where the government has chosen to erect a monument to one faith stigmatizes nonadherents as second-class citizens, while demeaning the faith of adherents by coopting what is sacred.”
Americans United sharply disagrees with the views of Religious Right legal groups, which have filed legal documents before the Supreme Court arguing that the case is trivial because government display of the cross causes no harm.
Noting that “symbols have power,” Americans United insists, “The cross is, of course, the ‘supreme emblem of Christianity,’ and one of humanity’s most ancient, widely recognized, and deeply hallowed symbols…. To dismiss an official display of a large cross as merely passive and therefore insignificant…is to misunderstand not only the display’s purpose, but also the cross’s essential nature and abiding power, both for those who cherish it and for those who do not.”
The AU brief also urges the Supreme Court to leave intact well-established doctrine about “standing” – the right to sue.
Lynn said he hopes the court makes it clear that individuals who oppose government display of religious symbols have the right to challenge them in court.
The brief was drafted by AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and AU Madison Fellow Elizabeth Stevens with input from AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.
Joining AU on the brief are the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the North American South Asian Bar Association, People For the American Way Foundation and the Union for Reform Judaism.