Sunday, March 3, 2019

Atheists Get No Respect in Peace Cross Case

      Supreme Court justices struggled last week [Feb. 27] with the issue of how to reconcile the constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion with the prominent display of a 40-foot Latin cross on a public right of way to memorialize fallen U.S. soldiers from the First World War. By the end of the expanded 70-minute oral argument in the Peace Cross case, a majority of justices clearly had no inclination to interfere with the war memorial cross at its present location in the middle of a busy traffic intersection in Prince Georges County outside Washington, D.C. 
      The atheists and nonbelievers who brought this lawsuit seven years ago were fated to lose once it reached a Supreme Court that has been increasingly uninterested in policing the separation of church and state. Still, they might have expected more respectful treatment in oral arguments in American Legion v. American Humanist Association than to hear two of the justices suggest from the bench that they had no business bringing the suit in the first place and were nothing more than obstinate troublemakers. 
      The belittling of the American Humanist Association's suit seeking to move the cross from its present location on property claimed by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission began with the opening words of the American Legion's attorney, the invariably pugnacious conservative Supreme Court advocate Michael Carvin.  The Peace Cross "should be upheld under any sensible Establishment Clause analysis," Carvin told the justices, disrespecting not only the plaintiffs but the two Fourth Circuit judges who found the cross to be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. 
      The Legion and the park and planning commission both base their defense of the cross on the argument that it has, in the words of the commission's attorney former U.S. solicitor general Neal Katyal, "independent secular meaning" as a memorial apart from its religious significance. In their decision in the case, the two-judge majority on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged the cross's secular purpose but went on to carefully review the history of the cross and judge it under the Supreme Court's existing precedent: the established if controversial test set out in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). 
      The Lemon test has been criticized by a majority of justices over the years, as Justice Neil Gorsuch noted during arguments, but "never at the same time" and thus never overruled. Applying that test, Fourth Circuit judges James Wynn and Stephanie Thacker found in Thacker's detailed opinion that the cross failed the second and third prongs of the test because it would be reasonably seen as endorsing a specific religion and because it resulted in government entanglement with religion. 
      Thacker emphasized that the fundraising for the cross in the early 1920s rested on Christian rather than ecumenical themes and that the dedication and later observances at the memorial have been exclusively Christian. She acknowledged that passive religious displays are given deferential treatment under Lemon but noted that the governmental planning commission has spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on maintenance and upkeep since assuming responsibility for the cross. 
      Instead of Lemon, Carvin urged the Court to apply a more lenient test, drawn from the recent decision in Van Orden v. Perry (2005) to uphold the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol, that finds no Establishment Clause violation unless the government is effectively coercing nonbelievers into religious observance. 
      In her turn at the lectern, the humanists' lawyer Monica Miller was forced to spend valuable time defending the decision to bring the suit after the cross had stood, seemingly without controversy, for nearly 90 years. The suit was about nothing more than the atheists' view that the cross was "too loud," Gorsuch suggested.  "Why shouldn't we apply our normal standing rules and require more than mere offense to make a federal case out of these?" Gorsuch asked.
       "I don't think it's mere offense," Miller replied. "We're talking about the government being the speaker and essentially giving you the message as the non-Christian in your community that you are a lesser citizen."
      A few minutes later, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. similarly saw no reason for the suit. "In a pluralistic society," Alito remarked, "ordinary people get along pretty well — and are not at each other's throats over religious divisions." As for the need for civility, Miller answered indirectly after exchanges with other justices by noting that she herself had received death threats because of her role in the case and her clients threatened as well.
      By the end of the argument, Court watchers counted no more than two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, as probable votes against the cross, with perhaps one of their liberal colleagues, Elena Kagan, but probably not with Stephen Breyer, author of the pivotal opinion in the Ten Commandments case.
      For the majority, however, the case will pose a difficult task of threading a 40-foot cross through the needle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The challenge for the assigned author will be to find a "sensible" way, to borrow Carvin's phrase, to find it no establishment of religion for the government to maintain what is concededly the preeminent symbol of Christianity as a memorial to fallen soldiers with none of the symbols of the many other faiths represented in this pluralistic society.

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