I’m a big fan of the U.S. Supreme Court, and I’ll defend its important role in our checks and balance system of government to the end. But sometimes, when those five right-wingers on the court get together they can produce some pretty wacky results. After all, it was Chief Justice John Roberts who testified during his confirmation hearing that it’s“my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” In Salazar v. Buono, however, the conservative band of brothers not only umpired, they took every position in the field, loaded the bases and then hit one out of the park when they decided last week that a cross is not a cross.
“Although certainly a Christian symbol, the cross was not emplaced on Sunrise Rock to promote a Christian message,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion. Huh? I’m imagining that the Christians who trundled out to the cross’ remote Mojave Desert location to conduct Easter services would be surprised to hear that.
But Kennedy wasn’t done. Since the cross was supposedly there to commemorate World War I veterans, he figured relying on that would solve his problem. “Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion,” he wrote. “It evokes the thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”
What? If that’s true, what do the thousands of small Stars of David—3,500 of them—evoke? Chopped liver?
Well, if the Supreme Court can rule that a cross doesn’t have religious significance, I suppose we can provide the list of "10 Things You Can Do with a Cross" (no problem, right?):
1. You can convert one into a digital antenna so that people without cable can receive TV signals.
2. You can put one in a cornfield wearing an old hat and a shirt stuffed with straw. It’d still be a scarecrow, but a really brave, patriotic one.
3. You need to make sure you have a “religious” one when you’re warding off a vampire, otherwise it won’t work.
4. You can put a candy cane one in a McDonald’s Happy Meal during Christmas, because “hey, it’s just candy.” (And besides, the burgers aren’t kosher or halal, so Jews and Muslims shouldn’t be eating them anyway.)
5. You can use them to create a greener environment by posting two of them outside and tying a “clothesline” in between. Once upon a time, kiddies, that’s the way we dried clothes.
6. You can watch one being used in the masturbation scene in "The Exorcist" without feeling so creepy.
7. You can use one to chop salsa if you don’t have an iPad.
8. You can watch Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" and think it’s just another Mad Max movie.
9. You can give one of those cute silver ones on a chain to your Muslim or Jewish friends with a gift note that says, “It’s OK to wear this, the Supreme Court says it doesn’t mean what you think.”
10. You can post one as a warning sign in front of the Vatican, if you paint the words “Children Beware” on it.
OK, so it’s possible that many of you are offended by now. If you are, that’s a good thing, because a cross is a symbol that deserves respect. If you’re a Christian, you’re likely thinking how important that symbol is to you, and that you don’t want it sullied or ridiculed. You’d be not unlike Muslims who were so offended by a Danish newspaper’s parodied depictions of Muhammad.
There’s just no way around the fact that the cross represents the spiritual center for billions of people worldwide, and it is what it is no matter how much the Supreme Court tries to say it’s something else. And because of that, it doesn’t belong on public lands. The irony is that the only way the court’s five conservatives could promote their distorted view of the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause,” and their theocratic agenda, is to deny the obvious. God bless ‘em.
Michael Jonathan Grinfeld is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a co-director of MU’s Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and the Media.