Justice Samuel Alito got it right in his majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday that allows a 40-foot cross memorializing World War I casualties to remain on public land in Maryland. Religious symbols don’t have to divide people. Rather, they can unite them behind broader meanings.
“The recent tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris provides a striking example,” Alito wrote. “Although the French Republic rigorously enforces a secular public square, the cathedral remains a symbol of national importance to the religious and nonreligious alike. Notre Dame is fundamentally a place of worship and retains great religious importance, but its meaning has broadened. For many, it is inextricably linked with the very idea of Paris and France.”
That’s why, after the fire, French President Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frédéric Macron cited the cathedral as embodying the nation’s history, literature and imagination. It is “the place where we survived epidemics, wars, liberation. It has been the epicenter of our lives.”
Americans, whose founding principles are intertwined with Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent hope to bind the nation’s Civil War wounds “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right …” should understand this completely. A nation does not have to ignore the religious devotion that motivates so many of its people in order to prevent the establishment of an official church.
The WWI memorial in Maryland may not hold such a broad significance for the nation, but it nevertheless has grown into an important community symbol over the past century.
Members of the American Humanist Association sued to have the memorial either altered or removed, saying they were offended by its promotion of Christianity on public land. They were focused on perceived divisions that likely never dawned on many people who had seen the giant cross through the decades.
The court, however, correctly noted how the memorial had instead been a unifier. The memorial itself contains the names of Christians and Jews, and despite the racial prejudices of the age in which it was erected, it contains the names of African Americans along with white soldiers. In 1918, “the plain Latin cross had become a central symbol of the war,” the court’s opinion said. “The image of row after row of plain white crosses marking the overseas graves of soldiers was emblazoned on the minds of Americans at home.”
It was a reminder, at the time, of those far-away graves, and it allowed grieving loved ones who never would travel abroad to have a place of remembrance. Over time, the monument became historically significant as a place of “a common cultural heritage,” the opinion said.29 comments on this story
The United States may forever grapple with the proper placement of the line that separates the need to honor the role religion plays in the lives of the overwhelming majority of its citizens from the official endorsement of one belief system over another. While Thursday’s ruling essentially was a 7-2 decision, its nuances created subtle divisions. Six of the justices in the majority issued separate opinions. The two who disagreed issued strongly worded dissents.
It was a decision almost as varied and nuanced as the many religious belief systems that make up the fabric of the nation’s cultural tapestry.
The overall effect of it was, however, to affirm that religious symbols do not necessarily tug at the First Amendment’s establishment clause. That is an inclusive and unifying result.