As we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide another religious liberty case–this time, concerning the constitutional propriety of a 40-foot cross in Maryland–it might be helpful to revisit the origins of the competing definitions of “liberty” that are at the heart of so many of these cases.
We are told that the colonists who originally settled in what is now the United States came to the new world for religious liberty. And that’s right; they did. But their view of religious liberty was that it was “freedom to do the right thing.” And that involved establishing colonies where the government would make sure that everyone did “the right thing.”
Around 150 years later, George Washington became the first President of a country founded upon a very different understanding of liberty. Liberty was conceived of as freedom to do your own thing, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to accord an equal right to others.
What had changed the definition of liberty? The scientific and intellectual movement we call the Enlightenment, which had occurred in the interim between the original Puritans and the Revolutionary War.
The U.S. Constitution may have been based upon the definition that emerged from the Enlightenment, but America still is home to lots of Puritans. And their “sincere belief” is that liberty means the government should be able to impose–or at least, privilege– their religion.
An editorial in The New York Times explains the case currently pending before the Court:
This week’s hearing, in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, involved a 40-foot cross in Bladensburg, Md., that was erected 93 years ago to honor fallen World War I soldiers. The question before the court: Is Maryland in violation of the First Amendment because the memorial is on public property and maintained with public funds?
There would be no constitutional violation if the cross were on private property. The issue is government endorsement of religion, which is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The editorial notes that there is considerable confusion about the application of the Establishment Clause to public monuments.
Lower court judges are confused about how to apply the Supreme Court’s dictates in this area of the law, so more clarity from the high court — if not a definitive, bright-line rule — is in order.
Alas, such clarity doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. After Wednesday’s hearing, the court seems poised to allow the cross — which otherwise bears no religious inscriptions — to stay. But the justices don’t appear to be any closer to consensus on this issue than they’ve ever been.
“I mean, it is the foremost symbol of Christianity, isn’t it?” Justice Elena Kagan asked at Wednesday’s session. “It invokes the central theological claim of Christianity, that Jesus Christ, the son of God, died on the cross for humanity’s sins and that he rose from the dead. This is why Christians use crosses as a way to memorialize the dead.”
Justice Stephen Breyer, who in the past has wrestledwith the Constitution’s religion clauses, pondered whether “history counts” when assessing a monument’s legality. Maybe older displays, erected when the nation wasn’t nearly as religiously diverse, should be allowed, he suggested. “We’re a different country,” Justice Breyer said. “We are a different country now, and there are 50 more different religions.”
Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration–which wasn’t a party to the case and need not have offered an opinion–weighed in on the side of those who want the cross to remain.
The editorial concluded:
With its recent rulings, the Supreme Court has only muddied the separation between church and state by taking seriously religious objections to contraception, civil rights laws and the allocation of public funds. It is hard to fathom the justices being nearly as accommodating with a publicly funded monument to atheism or a Wiccan pentagram. And last month, the court couldn’t even agree that a Muslim death-row prisoner from Alabama deserved the same rights as Christians in his final moments.
However the justices resolve this the dispute, they would be wise to not sow more confusion in this area of the law and feed the perception that only certain religions and practices get a fair shake in public life.
When those “certain religions” are privileged, equality before the law takes a hit.