Crosses And Christmas Trees

File this one under that growing category: Be careful what you wish for.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court overruled lower courts, and held that a huge Maryland cross can remain on public land–that its location on public property and the fact that it is maintained with tax dollars is not enough to find that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The reasoning here is significant.

The cross “has become a prominent community landmark, and its removal or radical alteration at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions,” the court wrote. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion for the court.

“And contrary to respondents’ intimations, there is no evidence of discriminatory intent in the selection of the design of the memorial or the decision of a Maryland commission to maintain it. The Religion Clause of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, and the presence of the Bladensburg Cross on the land where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.”

In a truly impressive demonstration of cognitive dissonance, Justice Alito characterized removal of the cross as “hostility to religion” and denied that the cross had religious significance.

Alito argued that the cross had essentially become secular. He invoked the history of World War I memorials noting the rows and rows of crosses and stars of David at cemeteries that memorialized those who died in that war and that established in people’s minds, in his view, that that was a way to honor to dead.

Gee, I wonder why Justice Ginsberg disagreed with Alito’s “history.”

“Decades ago,” Ginsburg wrote, “this Court recognized that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution demands governmental neutrality among religious faiths, and between religion and nonreligion. … Numerous times since, the Court has reaffirmed the Constitution’s commitment to neutrality. Today the Court erodes that neutrality commitment, diminishing precedent designed to preserve individual liberty and civic harmony in favor of a ‘presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices.'”

She adds, “The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’ … Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Court was trying to avoid another culture war reaction by the White “Christians” still smarting from more significant rulings like same-sex marriage. The ruling by its terms only protects monuments already erected and longstanding; it is unlikely to protect efforts at new construction.

Ironically, what it is likely to do is further the “secularization” of symbols previously considered Christian. That transformation has already occurred with Christmas trees, after the Court declined to attribute religious significance to them. I doubt seriously if the sight of those ubiquitous, gaily adorned trees triggers theological reactions in anyone these days.

A Christian clergyman friend of mine opposed prayer in school irrespective of the First Amendment, because–as he put it–“I don’t pray to ‘whom it may concern.'” His opposition was based on experience;  when religious devotions or symbols become public, they inevitably become generic, losing their religious character.

White Christians who fear their loss of social dominance will undoubtedly cheer Justice Alito’s intellectually incoherent decision.

Christians who care about protecting the meaning of their religious iconography will be less enthusiastic.


  1. Ordinarily I would agree with the removal of a cross on public property; but a 100 year old, historical memorial to our war dead should come under a “grandfather clause” for removal of religious symbols. What exactly do floral wreaths represent on the tomb of unknown soldiers?

    Hey y’all; let’s go after the Red CROSS next!

    Trump almost got us into a war with Iran yesterday; then backed down. When he dies; IF he ever accommodates us by doing so, will his grave display a cross or a burning cross? Just askin’ because I am sick of all branches of our our government at this point.

  2. I have relatives who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who ARE Christians. They are offended by both crosses AND Christmas trees, because they are symbols derived from pagan religions.

  3. The cross is a wonderful symbol of grace. But religious modernity attaches a “died for my sins” cloud of confusion. If it is used for the nation, are all the sins of the nation and all its people forgiven for sins? That might have some merit. But, for evangelical fundamentalists the forgiveness is for the “christians only.” However, Aleteo says the cross is not even a religious symbol, which, therefore, negates the evangelical notion of being forgiven. Is Aleteo sober today?

  4. Sheila’s last sentence is important. If someone “believes,” then protecting the meaning of a symbol of that believe should be more important than waving it around in everyone else’s faces.

  5. In the throes of their far right beliefs the overly religious of all faiths see even the most innocent change in society as a threat against themselves. It’s that ego driven fundamentalist mind set that so identifies with their belief system that change becomes an attack on them personally. Thus we see different sects adopting as a tenant of their faith dress codes, hair styles, the domination of one sex over another, and the shunning of all persons outside of the group. While much of their behavior is easily dismissed, what is worrisome is the fact that so many of these groups have politicized, organized and moved into the public arena to use the law as a means to “convert” the rest of us. And they are being very successful having gained control over the White House, have placed a future world leader in waiting (Pence), elected numerous legislators and judges to office and bought so many of the rest.
    You on this blog may believe in the Constitution, but they don’t.

  6. Well, Justice Alito has not been known for his intellectual rigor since joining the court, so this comes as no surprise. I agree that the cross is definitely a Christian symbol, but the Christmas tree, like the date of Christmas, is more appropriately a pagan symbol. Both the tree and the date were appropriated by the Christians to convince the pagans that they were more alike than not and therefore, nothing to fear. Today, with the power of the court behind them, they are most certainly something to fear.

  7. I agree with Sheila’s friend: “His opposition was based on experience; when religious devotions or symbols become public, they inevitably become generic, losing their religious character.”

    Although, us mere mortals granting character to a power greater than ourselves is comical. The Universe is unlimited, infinity, etc.

    We are always taking these powers and “humanizing” them to our liking. If God exists, I don’t it would look like Uncle Ben nor does Jesus have blonde hair and blue eyes. Our minds are limited to these concepts.

    Santa Claus and the tree are a Nordic ritual which has nothing to do with Christianity. It’s about giving to others.

    I bet the great Yogi masters in India are mocking us for how we’ve bastardized yoga. There is even a yoga before brews. Could you see a church program called Christ before brews?

    No wonder we argue over 200-year-old crosses. 😉

    Both Alito and Scalia were two peas in a pod. When their rulings had too, they made zero sense. They could rule our hands aren’t connected by wrists but by our knee. Then chuckle over a Scotch and water…knowing their ruling was causing RBG to spin in her chair.

  8. Justice Ginsburg’s written dissent perfectly pointed out the ridiculous outcome of this case.

    I can’t imagine that citizens anywhere would allow any local or state government to financially support the upkeep of a symbol of any other religion located on public property, let alone allow one to be erected on public property.

    This decision was made by a right wing Christian dominated supreme court.

  9. Once again religion proves the point that fairy tales and suspicions rule the mind of man to no good whatsoever. It is decisive, backward, primitive and, ultimately, meaningless. I wonder if Alito, or any of the other Catholics on the court would rule the same way if there was a 40 foot Star of David or Star and Crescent perched on some hilltop.

    I would prefer a giant fish symbol with the word “DARWIN” in the middle of it. Why can’t I have that? It’s about as useful as all the rest of this nonsense.

  10. The Evangelical Bible Thumper’s want to find reasons to feel a sense of martyrdom. Thus, we have the War on Christmas, taking prayer out of public school, or swearing an oath on the bible.

    The corporate forces of profit have transformed religious symbols (pagan and christian) into secular for profit objects. The for profit motive has a long history: Buying religious relics, or hanging St. Christopher Medals on your rear view car mirror.

  11. I hear many complaints about the Evangelicals, but few will publicly criticize the insane, corrupt organization that now controls the Supreme Court: The Roman Catholic Church.

  12. I can’t help but think of the recent removing all the statues of General Robert E Lee in southern states that were on public land. They had been there for years, and accepted as part of history. Doing that did upset a lot of people. So today we can alter historical monuments on public land, but a religious symbol on public land stays. That’s giving priority to religion, sort of above the law status? The incongruity in the thinking is evident to a lot of people. I thought the Supreme Court was paid to figure this stuff out? Oh, yea where are their business interests?

  13. Witness the Roncalli football team taking the field with a gay pride flag before you assert that the Roman Catholic Church controls its members.

  14. Hey Over It —
    There are many “evangelicals” in the Catholic Church. They exist in all forms of Christianity. They believe their mission is to get everyone on the Jesus train. If only Jesus could see what his message has become associated with today. And actually, Jesus was Jewish. As an Indian philosopher named Bara Dada said: “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians, you are not like him.”

  15. Kathy M,

    Bravo. It’s all speculation since there isn’t a shred of evidence that any of this stuff is actual, factual or true.

    Meanwhile, humans stumble toward their own extinction while praising things they don’t understand or who have never seen. Perfect.

  16. Rather than take sides in a never ending debate I’m reminded of the purpose of the Supreme Court; a purpose under attack by Republican Presidents in their nominations of potential Justices.

    No matter how precisely the founders worded the Constitution, interpreting their words for these times is a never ending task that requires and justifies our best legal brains. Given that, the current process of nominating political hacks ought to be another process that should be adjudicated as Constitutional or not. To me the current Republican process is un-Constitutional in spirit at least.

  17. I lived for a while under the shadow (so to speak) of the the Mount Soladad Cross in La Jolla. I thought they had a perfect solution. The city sold 22 sqare feet of land, with the cross, to a private association. Unfortunately, certain conservative congressmen had the federal government seize the land by passing a new law — and I don’t remember which side of time this was, but there was also a complaint that the city didn’t have open bidding on the land. Eventually, a private association did buy the land for over a million dollars. Still, the whole idea made sense – nobody took down the cross and it isn’t on “public” land.

    BTW – the crosses (Mount Soladad and Mount Helix) had an extremely useful secular purpose as landmarks for private pilots. They really helped find the airport from the west and the east.

  18. Jim Stovall says “The cross is a wonderful symbol of grace. ” – how is that if it isn’t a religious symbol? And what if it does not represent grace to me?

    Len Farber – Gee, couldn’t something else have been a marker for pilots? Seen the Washington Monument lately? Though it can be seen as a pagan symbol.

    I used to live in Maryland outside DC, and while I practice no religious flavor that uses the cross symbolism, I doubt I paid any attention to the memorial in question. Now, I wonder however, if it was dedicated only to Christians who died in that war.

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