Symcox: In defense of the cross

In the coming weeks, the United States Supreme Court will decide the fate of a five-foot Latin cross that has been in the Mojave National Preserve for nearly 75 years.

The arguments heard last week were the culmination of 10 years of litigation — a courtroom drama pitting Frank Buono, a former National Park Service employee, against the Department of the Interior and the full weight of the federal government.

Although the Mojave Cross is intended to honor all of those who died in battle, Buono contends that he found the use of the symbol offensive when intended as a war memorial. And, more importantly from the court’s point of view, he believes that erecting it on federal land was a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Most sensible Americans would agree with Buono on several points. First, the government should not be in the business of sponsoring overtly religious architecture; second, the National Park Service should not be required to use its limited resources to maintain such architecture; and finally, that the sacrifices of all American soldiers in time of war, regardless of religion, should be honored equally.

If these were the only principles at stake, a just court would have no choice but to find in favor of Buono. Yet the realities of the cross’s construction and the nature of the lawsuit require more nuanced judicial insight.

The Mojave Cross was erected not by the government, but by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a private organization, and is dedicated not only to the Christian dead, and not only to the American dead, but to “the dead of all wars.” The cross is not a grandiose federal endorsement of Christianity, but, rather, a simple steel construction barely as tall as a man, created by a local artist, funded by veterans organizations and maintained by local volunteers. The only argument against it is its location on federal land, which is a valid concern and one that Congress attempted to address through a land exchange with the VFW in 2003; the exchange, however, was blocked by a court injunction at the request of Buono.

Buono’s reservations about crosses on federal land are not without substance, but he lost his moral high ground by using the court to block the transfer of land to veterans associations. Through this action he ceased to be a champion of the secular state, becoming instead a man who prefers the destruction of a monument in honor of America’s fallen to the simple exchange of one acre of Mojave desert.

In the final analysis, it must be remembered, above all, that this small cross in the California desert was erected by the survivors of the trenches of the Western Front. It is but a small gesture in remembrance of those whose final resting place had been the mud of Château-Thierry and Meuse-Argonne. A century separates us from those brave young men and their memory cannot help but fade with time, yet, through this homemade cross on a hill in the desert they are remembered still. Do not let politics rob our soldiers of that.

Kevin Symcox is a senior in Silliman College.

Comments

  • Pierson90

    “It is but a small gesture in remembrance of those whose final resting place had been the mud of Château-Thierry and Meuse-Argonne. A century separates us from those brave young men and their memory cannot help but fade with time, yet, through this homemade cross on a hill in the desert they are remembered still. Do not let politics rob our soldiers of that.”

    Thank you for your eloquent reminder, Kevin.

  • not so

    A cross doesn’t honor “all of those who died in battle” any more than a star of David or a Muslim crescent would. It honors the Christian war dead. I encourage you to travel to Normandy (yes, WWII instead of WWI, but still), where you can observe one of the most moving and sad images on the planet. You’ll notice a sea of not only crosses over the graves, but also other religious symbols like the star of David. While everything would be completely fine if the land transfer had taken place (from what Kevin writes, I think it probably should have), when a cross is on federal land, it is insulting to claim that it represents people of all faiths.

  • Mike (FVThinker) Burns

    What is really being ruled on here is whether the land swap was fair and reasonable. Clearly the erection of the cross was done illegally (albeit a long time ago). Clearly the government cannot endorse Christianity over other religions (or non-belief). [It is my understanding that a petition to construct a Buddhist shrine at the same location was denied.]

    Carving out one acre of private land in the middle of a vast expanse of federal land seems like a contrivance as an end-run around the 1st amendment.

    As a non-believer myself, I do take offense at religious symbols on public land. I am as patriotic as the next guy and having such religious symbols connotes that I am less valued.

  • sy11

    Great points, Kevin.

  • y

    So yes, the government can sponsor religion as long as it gives a wink and a nod and gives away public land to a private organization.

  • @3

    don’t be ridiculous. A memorial cross does not symbolize that you are less valued.

    I am also a non-believer, but to suggest that religious symbols are ipso facto an affront to us is beyond absurd, an example of adolescent hair-trigger sensitivity.

    The fact that Buono blocked an attempt to transfer ownership of the land demonstrates perfectly well that this is not about ‘separation of church and state.’ It’s about scoring one against Christianity by whatever means possible.

    We can be fairly sure that if there were a star of David to honor Jewish soldiers on that highway, there would not be such outcry.

  • Yale 08

    Mike Burns

    The monument was not a monument to Mike Burns.

    The monument was for the Christian soldiers buried there.

    They have the right to freedom of religion in death as well as in life.

  • @ #7

    What Christian soldiers buried there? Nobody’s buried under that cross. You’re not making any sense.

  • i love kevin symcox

    keep posting, kevlar

  • Mike (FVThinker) Burns

    @6
    You miss my point. The cross itself is not an affront to me. It is the cross on public, taxpayer-owned land that is an affront to me. It is also an affront to me that congress would contrive such a land transfer in an attempt to rectify the [clearly unconstitutional] situation. Were the transfer on the periphery of the nature preserve, I probably would have no problem if some basic tenets were followed. This is carving out a hole in the midst of an enormous public natural area. A jewish star of david would be similarly out of line.

    @Yale 08 / #7
    I agree; everyone has freedom of religion in life and [should you believe it] in death….as long as their religion is not funded with my tax dollars. …and there is nobody buried there at the illegally constructed memorial.