For the second time in a year, a cross posted on public lands as a historic marker has been stolen. In both cases, the cross was the subject of legal action under the first amendment.
In September of last year, vandals cut down a cross on public beach in Monterey, California. The Monterey cross was erected in 1969 as part of the city's bicentennial celebration. It marked the spot where Don Gaspar de Portola erected a wooden cross in 1769 as a beacon to a resupply ship from Mexico that was lost at sea. The city claimed that it was an historical monument and not a religious display. Prior to the theft of the cross by vandals, the ACLU had been challenging the monument on the grounds that it violated the establishment clause of the first amendment. Last month the cross was restored, but on private land instead of on the public beach.
I was reminded of the Monterey Cross today as I read stories about the Mojave Cross. For those not familiar with the story thus far, the Mojave Cross was erected in 1934 by WW I veterans as a memorial for fallen comrades. It was built on a rock in a relatively remote part of the Mojave Desert, part of the Mojave National Preserve. After a parks employee sued on the grounds that it violated the establishment clause of the first amendment, Congress tried to sidestep the issue by selling a small piece of land including the rock on which the cross stood to the VFW. The 9th Circuit issued an injunction barring the sale from taking effect and the case headed to the Supreme Court where it was decided less than two weeks ago. In a divided opinion in which 6 justices wrote opinions, the Court voted 5-4 to remand the case back to the district court saying that the court should consider the law an accommodation, not an evasion, and to consider other alternatives such as posting a sign that identifies the land as private property.
Setting aside the legal debate about the establishment clause and the extent to which it prohibits the display of religious symbols on public property, these two stories raise an even higher issue. A free society that allows for different, sometimes conflicting, religions to co-exist cannot endure in the face of religious intolerance. Freedom isn't free – it comes with responsibility. In this case, the price of religious freedom is tolerance, tolerance to those whose beliefs differ from our own. Those who would seek to destroy the symbols of a religion different from their own do themselves a disservice, for the destruction of any religious expression threatens their own freedom to worship, or not to worship, as they choose. Whether the vandals were members of another religious group or atheists, intolerance threatens their own religious freedom as well.