Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mojave Desert "cross" case: treat all faiths as equal under the law

The Supreme Court today began hearing oral arguments on a case regarding the separation of church and state. At issue is whether a Christian cross in honor of fallen veterans that was erected in the Great Depression era can be legally placed on federal land, or whether the government can sell that land to a private party to keep it in place there. The cross is located within the Mojave Desert.

The federal government attempted to sell the small parcel of land to private interests in order to preserve the cross at the site it is currently placed at. The motivations behind the transaction were clearly to preserve a religious symbol on/near federal lands, with the sale having no benefits financially to the federal government in any way.

Were the federal government to treat religious organizations equally -- allowing other groups to set up shrines or symbols as well -- then there wouldn't be much of a problem. But the park refused to place a Buddhist symbol there in 1999, and stated its intentions to remove the cross to be equal to all faiths. Upon hearing this, the federal government denied the park the funds necessary to remove the cross, effectively allowing only one religious symbol to exist on that land.

By disallowing other religious groups from setting up shrines or memorials, and by giving preferential treatment to another religious symbol, the government is clearly violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It has been "established," in other words, that a Christian symbol is acceptable on that federal land, with no others being allowed near it.

In its attempts to sell the land to private interests (a move that was struck down by a lower court), the government, too, was acting inappropriately towards a specific religious belief. They circumvented a judicial decision in order to avoid removal of a symbol that promoted a singular belief. In giving that land to a private entity, the government creates precedent for allowing public lands to become religious places. It also allows for governments to place whatever religious symbols it deems proper by selling plots to public spaces while still denying other faiths the same privilege by calling it a business transaction.

In essence, a local government could sell a plot of land within public space and call it legitimate without having to cater to other interests. James Madison Park near Lake Mendota could have a cross erected right in the middle of it if the city of Madison wanted to do so, under this precedent, and it would be perfectly legitimate because it was sold. But the city would be under no obligation whatsoever to treat other faiths in a similar manner.

If a church wants to place a cross at a public park, it should be able to do so; but so, too, should any other religious organization have that right. The government has no right to give preferential treatment to one belief over another. It also has no right to sell its land to religious interests unless it does so in a non-discriminatory manner. In other words, if the government is going to sell land to one religious organization, it must also be willing to sell land to all other religious organizations.

Christian symbols should be allowed in public places; so should Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, and any other religious symbols. The government should not promote one over the other, but rather all as equals in the eyes of the law. The right thing to do here is allow the cross to remain in the desert with other religious symbols being allowed a presence there, too.

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