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Supreme Court-Sanctioned Veteran Cross Memorial Stolen From Mojave Desert

May 12, 2010
Salvation Cross
Image by watch4u via Flickr

The Supreme Court approved the decision to allow a cross, a religious symbol, to remain in the Mojave Desert on US federal property as a memorial for slain U.S. soldiers, only to have it stolen in the night.  The presence of the cross has been hotly debated, because it is a religious symbol planted on US government property and therefore in violation of the stated separation of church and state.  Despite this approval of religious symbolism on federal property, and despite rulings the that 10 Commandments aren’t allowed in court rooms, or crosses erected on public school grounds, the cross was removed by others who apparently didn’t agree with the US Supreme Court’s decision to let the cross stand:

LOS ANGELES – Thieves have stolen a cross in the Mojave Desert that was built to honor Americans who died in war, less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the religious symbol to remain on federal land.

The 7-foot-high cross was stolen late Sunday or early Monday by thieves who cut the metal bolts that attached the symbol to a rock in the sprawling desert preserve, National Park Service spokeswoman Linda Slater said…

The VFW promised that the memorial will be rebuilt at its remote rock 70 miles south of Las Vegas and 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

“This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families,” National Commander Thomas J. Tradewell said.

It was not immediately clear whether they would be permitted to erect a new cross or whether a new cross would fall under the Supreme Court ruling.

“We’re waiting for news from the Department of Justice as to what we should do. The case is still in litigation,” Slater said.

The cross has provoked a tremendous amount of debate over the years among civil libertarians, veterans and the courts.

Federal courts ruled that the cross was unconstitutional and rejected a congressional effort to solve the issue by transferring the property into private hands.

The high court last month sent the property issue back to a lower court again and, in the meantime, refused to order its removal. Six justices wrote separate opinions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the cross shouldn’t be seen merely as a religious symbol.

“Here one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten,” he wrote.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens agreed that soldiers who died in battle deserve a memorial to their service. But the government “cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message,” Stevens said.

While Kennedy’s assertion that a cross shouldn’t be seen just as a religious symbol, because it “evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles,” is patently weak, his argument that removing the cross and therefore somehow forgetting the dead is worse than a constitutional violation has only been allowed to stand because he is already in his position.  That level of legal argument would probably result in an “F” in any law school brief, but apparently on the U.S. Supreme Court, that level of poorly constructed argument won the majority, only to have someone steal it to end that discussion.

Stevens argument is by far the most nuanced, but it’s well-known that he is retiring after the whole blow-up over allowing companies to be seen as individuals and therefore allowing foreign corporations to essentially buy American elections.  Stevens position that the campaign finance decision will have far-reaching effects is correct:  just think of all the lawsuits open to individuals wishing to sue corporations now as individuals that weren’t open to them before this.  Makes one wonder how much in campaign finance was directed to the US Supreme Court Justices on their way up the ladder to allow that short-sighted decision.  Actually, as an individual, it’s an exciting decision to see businesses be held legally in the same position as individuals, but Stevens was right in asserting that the Supreme Court is moving in the wrong direction, as evidenced by this latest cross decision, as well as the campaign finance decisions.

By asserting that the US Government allows and supports a religious symbols’ erection on federal property, the Supreme Court has not only violated the separation of church and state dictates, but it has also shown discrimination against other religions by allowing Christianity-based symbols to be supported by the US government and built on federal governmental property, to the exclusion of other religious symbolism.  Can Wiccans erect their own religious memorial on federal properties?  Is the Christian cross allowed simply because it’s been used other places, such as on battle fields?  But then again, who knows what religious markers have been left on battlefields in foreign lands.  And isn’t that equation along the same lines of religiously-affiliated imperialism?  Oh wait, you mean perhaps other countries don’t want their properties marked with crosses?  Maybe the battlefields were also marked with symbols of Islam, Judiasm, Witchcraft, or other religious symbols.  Simply saying the cross is a recognizable symbol doesn’t erase its religious significance, nor the inappropriate nature of protecting religious statements on federal property.

Lest we all get too enmeshed in these discussions, perhaps the dilemma has been solved for us by thieves: the cross is gone and now the legal issues of whether or not to build a new cross emerge instead of letting one stand.

Experts question whether or not the US government’s co-opting of the Christian religious symbol will be good for the Christian religion.  After all, if the cross is used by the US government, is it still a Christian symbol?  The cross’s meaning has changed over the years anyway, but it’s legendary status on the battlefield first came from the Romans, who used it as a sign of executions.  Let’s not forget that Jesus was not the only person executed on the cross–the cross was reserved for the basest criminals, a form of public execution designed to deter crime and demonstrate the power of a governmental regime, much like a noose, or public beheadings, one could even argue coliseums filled with lions.  So why should the US government take up the cross?  Why indeed:

When a Supreme Court justice says the cross is not just about Christianity, it diminishes Jesus’ charge to his followers to “take up their cross and follow me,” said Read Schuchardt, an expert on symbolism and iconography at Wheaton College in Illinois.

But the cross’s meaning has already changed from the early centuries when it was known as a Roman tool of power and execution.

“Like all symbols, they go through an evolutionary process that almost always drains them of their original meaning by adding secondary and tertiary meanings,” he said.

Christian ethicist David Gushee said the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the multiple meanings of the cross shows that it is not a clear legal win for Christians who want to see crosses erected in the public square.

Now that thieves have stolen the cross the legal question changes from letting a memorial stand to building a religious memorial on federal property.  Let’s not forget that crosses were used in the Crusades, as governmental execution devices, and as a show of U.S. military exploits as markers for fallen soldiers in a land that has been conquered, so what about at home?

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