The Supreme Court just decided an important First Amendment case, and the unsurprising outcome serves as an important reminder of how the dominant culture manages to express its dominance even when the Constitution would seem to suggest otherwise. Here’s the summary:
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a 40-foot cross erected as a tribute to war dead may continue to stand on public land in Maryland, rejecting arguments that it was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
The vote was 7 to 2, but the ruling prompted an outpouring of individual opinions as the court struggled to explain what should be done with public displays that feature religious imagery.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the main opinion and said history and tradition must be taken into account when judging modern objections to monuments on public land.
The majority’s decision gave multiple reasons why the cross could stay, including that it has a secular purpose (honoring war dead), despite being a religious symbol. The decision also argued that it has been around for a long time, so removing it would be a more significant step than if it had been put up last month.
The decision didn’t go as far as some wanted, however. There are conservatives who argue that the test shouldn’t be whether a display like this has a secular purpose but the much looser standard of whether it actually coerces anyone into practicing some religion. In other words, your city hall could put up a big portrait of Jesus over its entryway, but as long as city officials are not forcing you to get down on your knees and pray to it in order to get a permit to repave your driveway, there’s no problem.
This was essentially the position taken by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in a concurrence to the decision, though he argued that a display also should be “rooted in history and tradition” to pass muster. And Justice Clarence Thomas went even further in his concurrence, arguing not only that coercion is the only thing that would make a display unconstitutional but also that the establishment clause shouldn’t even apply to actions by the states but only to the federal government.
Let’s be honest: These advocates of loosening up the establishment clause to allow more displays of religious symbols know that, if they had their way, there wouldn’t be Jewish stars or Muslim crescents going up on government property all over the country. It’s precisely because their religions’ symbols would be the ones erected that it’s something they want. If they thought PA systems in a thousand public schools would ring out with “Allah hu akbar,” they wouldn’t want the return of prayer in schools either.
Even though they aren’t completely getting their way, monuments such as the Peace Cross will stay. And if you don’t like it — whether that’s because you’re Jewish or Muslim or atheist, or just because you have a firm commitment to the establishment clause — you just have to put up with it.
Which is a good opportunity to offer a reminder to those who feel their religion is being assaulted because everyone else isn’t always forced to live under (their interpretation of) its principles or pay homage to their symbols. The rest of us tolerate your religion and your culture all the time. A few might file a lawsuit over some particularly egregious case, but most of the time we just suck it up.
To be clear, I’m not talking about arguments over what the law should be when it comes to things like which people deserve basic human and civil rights. I’m talking about the pervasiveness of Christian culture that the non-Christian among us tolerate, and the pervasiveness of religious culture that the nonreligious live with.
It’s all around you, from “In God We Trust” on our money to giant crosses on public land to prayers to open the day’s session in Congress — and that’s just the stuff government sponsors, in what many of us believe are pretty obvious violations of the establishment clause. There’s also all the religious (and mostly Christian) expressions that happen in the nongovernmental public sphere, which all of us encounter every day.
As the representative of all Jewish atheists (we had a vote at our last meeting), let me say: Most of it is fine. We’re not all that bothered when we go into a store and see a big “Merry Christmas” sign. We learn to live with it from an early age. Being a minority means your cultural signs and symbols are inevitably going to be overwhelmed by those of the majority.
But some in that majority don’t get that life in a pluralistic society requires that we all make a little room for each other. That’s why the “War on Christmas” stuff is so ridiculous: It’s a bunch of people complaining that they’re oppressed because everyone isn’t forced to participate in their culture.
It leads them to grow enraged when Starbucks makes its holiday cups a simple red, without a reindeer on them. And it makes them cheer a presidential candidate who promises that if they elect him, “We’re gonna start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” as though anyone was ever forbidden from saying it.
When your religion is the only religion that has a meaningful place in public life, and then society begins to make more room for other people’s beliefs, it can feel like an attack on you. But it isn’t. It’s a movement in the direction of making everyone feel like they have a legitimate place in our society.
And don’t worry, Christians: You’re still on top. The only 40-foot-high religious symbols on public land are crosses, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.