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Supreme Court decision upholds religious liberty

Faithful, Watchful Citizens

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently celebrated Religious Freedom Week (June 22-29). This provides as good an occasion as any for an update on religious freedom. The development is a U.S. Supreme Court decision, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, upholding the constitutionality of a cross monument on public property.

In honor of the fallen soldiers who did not return from World War I, the community of Prince George’s County in Maryland made plans in 1918 for a plain Latin cross memorial. The American Legion helped complete the project in 1925 and erected the 32-foot-tall cross, which bears the names of 49 soldiers. At its dedication, both a Baptist pastor and Catholic priest were present to offer prayers of invocation and benediction. Over the years, the cross also served as the venue for many memorial services, patriotic gatherings and community events.

In 1961, the memorial was acquired by a government entity that transformed the property into public ground. Since then, the cross has been maintained using public funds.

In 2014, the American Humanist Association, among others, filed a lawsuit, claiming that the memorial’s presence on public land violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause. A district court concluded the cross was constitutional. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. In a rather complicated 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court then reversed the 4th Circuit, ruling that the memorial’s presence on public land is not a violation of the First Amendment.

Seven Supreme Court justices determined the cross does not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, but only five of those justices agreed on the main holding (or rule) the case establishes.

In writing the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito stated that although the cross originally had a clear religious significance and a distinctly Christian connotation, the cross also had a (non-religious) secular meaning as a memorial.

Justice Alito also noted that the cross over time took on new meaning, a meaning that was not exclusively Christian but was respectful of and encompassed the entire community.

Justice Alito further expressed concerns over the 4th Circuit’s suggestions for remedying the constitutional problem they saw with the cross. The 4th Circuit proposed lopping off the arms of the cross to make it secular and neutral. Justice Alito retorted: “A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.” In other words, government action that modifies or expunges religious displays may be imbued with and viewed as having hostility toward religion – itself a violation of the Establishment Clause.

As religious liberty scholars Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami have observed, this decision stands for, at least, the idea that old historical religious monuments and displays are presumptively constitutional. They also criticize the decision, saying that if it only upholds this “antiquarian” rule, it makes little logical sense. In other words, if the rule of this case is “if it’s old enough, it’s constitutional,” the case is problematic.

For example, what if a city council were to establish the same type of religious/secular monument today to honor the lives of those who do not return from overseas combat in, say, Afghanistan? The memorial cross in Maryland is arguably constitutional, but the city council memorial cross is possibly too new and religious to be constitutional – an obviously odd and inconsistent outcome.

In response to this shortcoming of the case, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who agreed with the case’s outcome, proposed a different test for evaluating these types of displays and monuments. He argues for a “history and traditions” test. This test would ask the question whether a monument or display (old or new) is constitutional as “consistent with our nation’s traditions.”

In the end, there will be much scholarly ink spilled over this decision as it abounds with ambiguity and nuance – and may create more problems for lower courts than it solves. Nevertheless, the case also marks an important religious freedom victory and allows us, in the meanwhile, to lift high our (partially secular) cross in the public forum!

Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at tvenzor@necatholic.org.

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