The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments on the fate of a cross erected by the VFW as a war memorial on government property in the Mohave desert. Press accounts of the argument suggest the case will be decided on the rather narrow issue of whether Congress successfully mooted church/state issues by arranging to transfer ownership of the land to the VFW in 2004.
But the most interesting and telling exchange came between Justice Antonin Scalia and Peter Eliasberg, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney:
“Justice Antonin Scalia disputed the premise behind the lawsuit, telling Mr. Eliasberg that it was unfair to view the cross merely as a Christian symbol.
“The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead,” (Scalia) said. “What would you have them erect? Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”
“I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew,” Mr. Eliasberg said. “So it is the most common symbol to honor Christians.”
“I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead,” Justice Scalia said. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.”
That’s one of the more absurd statements you’re ever going to hear from a Supreme Court justice. At least I hope it is.
Ask Jewish people, and Jewish veterans, whether they think that a Christian cross honors their war dead. Ask Muslim veterans whether they consider the cross a “common symbol of the resting place of the(ir) dead,” as Scalia tried to argue. Most would not. As Eliasberg pointed out, there are no crosses in a Jewish cemetary. It is not a common symbol of the resting place of the dead. It is an exclusively Christian symbol.
Scalia embarrassed himself with that argument.
Two other points:
– Scalia demonstrates yet again the inanity of the arguments used against the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as justice. All judges — liberal, conservative, male, female, Italian-American or “Nuyorican” — bring their own backgrounds and perspectives to the job, just as Scalia has done here. He was speaking not as a legal scholar but as a devout Christian whose faith blinds him to the fact that others might see the cross differently than he does. It would have been shocking to have heard a similar argument from the lips of Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Stephen Breyer, the two Jews on the court. It was merely surprising to hear it from Scalia.
– In his effort to smuggle the cross over the wall dividing church and state, note how Scalia had to belittle its significance and try to strip it of its emotional power. It’s not really a cross, the place where Jesus Christ died for the sins of all mankind. It’s not really the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, a symbol that has been deeply revered by his followers for thousands of years. No, Scalia asks us to pretend that it’s just a horizontal stick tied to a vertical stick, a generic, bland little device, “the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead” for all faiths. It has nothing to do with Christ or Christianity.
Borrowing a metaphor from the Bible, Scalia was playing the role of Peter in the Garden, claiming to government officials that he did not recognize Christ even though he saw him right in front of him. It demonstrates once again how government-sanctioned expressions of religious faith inevitably cheapen that faith and bleach it of its power. Yes, the wall separating church and state protects government from religion, but most of all it protects religion from government.