Crossing up the veterans

mojave-crossHere we go again. I have heard from some readers who want to know what GetReligion thinks of the coverage -- specifically the A1 news feature in the Washington Post -- about the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union and a several other groups to take down a simple cross erected in honor of World War I veterans on an outcropping of rock on federal land in the Mojave National Preserve in California.

Right now, the cross is covered in a rather ugly plywood box to hide it from desert wanderers who might be offended.

Conservative are outraged, of course, and this latest excursion into the shifting sands of church-state law is about to hit the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is about more than this one cross, of course. It's about the role of religious symbolism in veterans memorials all over the place.

So am I supposed to share what I think about the case or am I supposed to focus on what I think of the Post report? Once again, readers need to remember the mantra that is so beloved by your GetReligionistas: This is not a blog about religion news. It's a blog about how the mainstream press struggles to cover religion news.

So let me say this about the A1 Post story: It looks fine to me, both as a reporter and as a guy with a graduate degree in church-state studies. It contains, for example, insightful and informed quotes on both sides of the debate. This passage is especially nice:

It seems an improbable importance for this piece of desert land, where temperatures regularly hit three digits, an hour can go by without a passing car and somewhere nearby is likely to be a Mojave Green, the desert's own highly lethal variety of rattlesnake.

"It's just a little cross in the middle of nowhere," said Wanda Sandoz, who with her husband Henry is the cross's unofficial caretaker. Henry built the cross that currently occupies the spot -- there have been three -- and the Sandozes say they are fulfilling a WWI veteran's dying request to look after things.

Hiram Sasser, a lawyer with the Liberty Legal Institute, which represents the Veterans of Foreign Wars and assists the Sandozes, agreed. "I always say you have to risk life and limb to be offended by this cross," he said.

At the same time, many of the voices on the other side are themselves religious believers, including Jewish and Muslim veterans.

Meanwhile, the other pivotal issue in this case is whether it is possible for a Christian cross (or a Jewish menorah, for example) to be used as a neutral, "secular," symbol. In this case, we are also talking about a cross that stands alone -- not one that is part of a government memorial containing other symbols.

One of the opponents is not so sure that he likes the idea of a non-Christian cross:

Despite what supporters say was its secular birth, the cross for years has been the scene of Easter sunrise services, and the challenges began in 1999, when the U.S. Park Service denied an application from a Buddhist to build a shrine nearby. Frank Buono, an assistant superintendent, informed his boss that the presence of the cross violated the Constitution's establishment clause.

Buono is Catholic, but he said he was offended by the religious display on federal land. "The cross is important to me because it is the indispensable symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ," Buono said in an interview. "But it isn't right that the symbol of my religion, or any religion, be permanently affixed to federal land."

Well now, you can imagine how much legislators enjoy being asked to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on the fate of a cross that is popular with elderly war veterans.

So it's a complex story, with strong emotions and arguments on both sides. In this case, I think the Post did a fine job of letting readers hear from interesting, informed voices.

And what do I think of the case itself? Click here and then here for hints.

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