The Washington, DC, suburb of Bladensburg, Maryland, is home to a forty-foot-tall cross that sits along a busy intersection. It occupies land owned by the state and is maintained courtesy of the taxpayers of Maryland (of which I am one) by the Park and Planning Commission.
Let's be clear about what this structure is. Although one news story I read referred to it as a "cross-shaped" memorial, it is, in fact, a very big cross. It's important to get the facts right because you'll likely be hearing a lot about this cross in the months to come since the American Humanist Association is challenging the state's right to own and display this religious symbol. The case, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, is pending before the US Supreme Court.
Known as the "Peace Cross," the symbol of Christianity was erected in 1925 by residents of Prince George's County in memory of forty-nine local men who died in World War I. Decades later, in 1985, it was rededicated in honor of everyone who died during that war.
Here's the problem with that: a cross, as the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith, can't honor all veterans. Crosses honor only some veterans--the ones who were Christian.
This would seem to be an obvious point, yet increasingly we are being told that crosses memorialize everyone. Some people will go to great lengths to make that argument. An enormous cross on Mount Soledad near San Diego, California, was originally erected for clearly religious purposes--Easter sunrise services--but was retroactively rebranded as a war memorial years later. Federal courts weren't fooled. While litigation dragged on for many years, the cross, originally on public property, is now in private hands.
A few years ago a flap erupted in Knoxville, Iowa, after Americans United for Separation of Church and State (my employer) objected to residents' plan to erect a war memorial that included a prominent cross. Many people in town were angry at us. They seemed to be incapable of looking inwardly and asking themselves why they were so intent on erecting a memorial that didn't include all of the veterans they claimed to cherish.
Legal disputes like this illustrate perfectly the Christian privilege that, despite our country's legal mandate of separation of church and state, has become common. Many conservative Christians, who would be the first ones to complain if the symbol of some other faith were used to represent them...