The public display of religious symbols and mottos has become the most contested church-state issue of recent years, with key battles being fought out in Congress as well as the Supreme Court.
The Wall Street Journal (May 27) reports that a case involving the display of a cross in a national preserve in California is likely to be the scene of the *most significant church-state controversy since last year*s fight over the Pledge of Allegiance.” The presence of the cross, which was erected in memory of war veterans before the area was declared a national preserve, brought a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union. So far the courts have ruled in the ACLU*s favor, stating that it violates individuals civil rights.
But the litigation itself has now become the issue. A 1976 law specifies that anyone bringing an even partly successful civil rights suit may have the plaintiff pay all legal fees for both parties, although such fee reversals are not permitted to successful defendants. Critic Christopher Levenick argues that the ACLU and other wealthy and powerful organizations use the “specter of massive attorney fees to force their secularist agenda on small school districts, cash-strapped municipalities and, now, veterans’ memorials.”
Even if the defendants don’t settle out of court and prevail, the advocacy group*s bringing such cases to court lose no money. Republicans are working on an amendment to the law, under which plaintiffs could still ask the courts to prevent governmental endorsement of religion but could no longer expect the public to pay for such suits.
Another issue gaining momentum in the courts concerns the public and governmental use of religious mottos. At issue in one case is whether theIn God We Trust motto can be inscribed on the façade of the Davidson County Government Center in Lexington, North Carolina. The “motto” appears on the US currency as early as the mid 19th century, and the phrase has been a motto of the United States for almost five decades. Therefore, according to the judge, the phrase is for “patriotic use,” both historically and in the present day and thus that is not unconstitutional, according to an Associated Press report (http://ap.tbo.com/ap/breaking/mgb6ku1z08e.html).
Other noteworthy cases involving religious symbols include one concerning four Florida public high schools holding graduation ceremonies at Calvary Chapel in Melbourne Florida. Two families with graduating students filed a lawsuit to either cover the religious symbols in the church or change the ceremony to a non-religious location for the graduation. The commencement was carried out in the church sanctuary as scheduled because the suit was filed at the last moment, yet the legal fight is still continuing.
It was almost two years that a 5,280 pound monument of the Ten Commandments was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court building over great controversy.
Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing two cases over similar displays of the Ten Commandments on the state capital grounds of Texas and Kentucky after the two lower courts registered contrary decisions on the display of Ten Commandments regarding whether it is a violation of the First Amendment. In the Texas case, the court ruled against the plaintiff, Thomas Van Orden who is an ex-lawyer, Vietnam War veteran, and homeless. In the Kentucky case, on the other hand, the judge ruled for the plaintiff, the ACLU of Kentucky.
Since these cases could be historically significant on church and state issues, the American Jewish Committee together with some Christian and interfaith organizations, however, filed a brief in opposition with the Supreme Court, saying, “When government attempts to rationalize its display of sacred texts by claiming secular purposes and secular effects, the inevitable tendency is to distort and desacralize the sacred text,” according to an AJC press release (http://www.ajc.org).
The Supreme Court’s decision on this issue will be made known by the end of June.
— This report was written with Ayako Sairenji, a New Jersey-based freelance writer.