Scare tactics are an important weapon in the assault on church-state separation. This was on display in the American Humanist Association's recent Supreme Court argument challenging the so-called Peace Cross, a forty-foot Latin cross towering over a traffic circle in the DC suburb of Bladensburg, Maryland. Defenders of the cross, which was originally dedicated to fallen soldiers of the First World War, repeatedly warned that a victory for the AHA would endanger other crosses all over the country.
The AHA's briefs in the case exposed these warnings as exaggerated, pointing out that only a few stand-alone cross memorials exist on public property nationwide. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court justices raised the subject at oral argument, indicating concern that widespread cross demolition could occur if the AHA prevails.
This concern is not only unfounded, it's ironic, because history has repeatedly shown that unintended consequences usually run the other way when courts make church-state rulings. To be sure, the danger in the Bladensburg case is not that crosses will be demolished all over the country if the AHA wins, but that crosses will be going up everywhere if the court rules the other way.
But wait, you might say, even if the Supreme Court allows the Bladensburg cross to stand, isn't it almost certainly going to do so with what's known as a "narrow ruling"--perhaps a decision that tolerates the cross, but only because it has sat for almost a century? Several justices during oral argument alluded to the age of the cross being an important factor. At one point, for example, Justice Breyer asked AHA Senior Counsel Monica L. Miller, "What do you think of saying, yes, look at the historical context here? History counts."
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that such a ruling, allowing the cross to stay but highlighting its age as a key reason, would impede the installation of new crosses. History shows that when courts open the religion door an inch, the Christian right will kick it open as wide as possible at the local level, ignoring the nuances of any judicial ruling and welcoming religion into public life far beyond the limits expressed by the underlying court ruling. If there is any decision upholding the Bladensburg cross, the religious right's interpretation will inevitably be very simple: If you want to erect a cross on public property, call it a war memorial.
The Christian right's overbroad interpretation of case law can be seen...