Deep in the Mojave National Preserve, 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles, an 8-foot-tall metal structure juts upward from a rocky outcrop. The structure is a Latin cross -- the preeminent symbol of Christianity -- that the National Park Service has boarded up with plywood pending a decision on its future by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case, known as Salazar vs. Buono and slated to be taken up by the court on Wednesday, is the culmination of a nine-year legal battle over whether the cross is a religious symbol or a secular “commemoration” of soldiers who died in World War I. Like many legal cases, this one has grown more complicated over the years. At issue now is not whether a cross on property owned by the federal government represents improper government endorsement of religion, thus violating the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits governmental favoritism of any particular religion. Lower courts have already decided that it is a violation of the 1st Amendment, and the government did not ask the Supreme Court to review this decision.
What the justices will consider instead is whether that favoritism is meaningfully eradicated by the government’s proposal to transfer ownership of the patch of land on which the cross stands to a local veterans group, even though the cross will remain designated a national memorial.
It’s clear to me and many other former military officers that the proposal does not live up to the government’s obligation not to favor any particular religion. The cross is unquestionably a sectarian religious symbol that, as a congressionally designated national memorial to veterans, would convey the message that the military values the sacrifices of Christian war dead over those of service members belonging to other faiths. This would be true even if the property were to be transferred to private owners.
Furthermore, such a memorial -- one of only 49 national memorials in the country -- would be harmful to the military as an institution. It would strike at the heart of what makes the military function, promoting social divisiveness while undermining unit cohesion and esprit de corps.
The U.S. military is a religiously diverse institution -- 11% of current active members of the military say they belong to a non-Christian faith, while 21% are atheists or report no religion. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims serve in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theaters, and Jews and Muslims have fought in the U.S. military in every war, including the Revolutionary War.
It’s essential for the military to reach out to members of minority faiths and to recruit and retain them. Such individuals often possess language and other skills that are vital to the military’s mission. But a war memorial that is made up of a large cross, standing by itself, would undermine these efforts.
Its message would not be, as the memorial’s defenders claim, one of commemoration for all war dead and veterans, or for all veterans of World War I. At best, the cross would say nothing at all about the sacrifices of non-Christian soldiers. At worst, it would suggest that those sacrifices are not remembered, honored or valued, driving a wedge between Christian and non-Christian soldiers.
Military cohesion can easily be imperiled by discrimination and prejudice. After World War II, powerful racial divisions in our military endured for decades, particularly between more diverse enlisted personnel and the nearly all-white officer corps. These divisions persistently undermined effectiveness. Religious preference and exclusion harm military cohesion in similar ways.
Not all war memorials that include religious symbols convey the same starkly sectarian message as this cross. When the symbols of several religions are displayed together, for example, or when religious symbols are accompanied by nonreligious monuments, it’s generally clear to all that no particular faith is being promoted above all others and that the contributions of all fallen soldiers and veterans are equally honored. Similarly, crosses that mark the graves of individual service members do not express governmental endorsement of religion, but an individual’s faith.
For all these reasons, I signed a brief in this case -- along with many other former high-ranking military officers -- in support of the American Civil Liberties Union’s position that the Mojave cross is unconstitutional and that the transfer does not remedy the problem. A high-court decision against the transfer of the cross and the land beneath it would be in the best interests of our nation, and our military.