Crossing Paths: Groups Offer Conflicting Standards on Religious Memorials

As global conflicts go, World War I doesn’t necessarily stand out, these days, for many Americans. The war ended nearly ninety years ago, and few who braved the horrors of the Argonne Forest are still around to tell their tales.

But at least one visionary saw to it that the heroes of “the Great War” would not be swept aside by the passage of time. In 1925, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King proposed a tangible remembrance: a memorial honoring Americans who anticipated their country’s entry in the conflict by volunteering in the Canadian Armed Forces from 1914-1917.

He suggested a symbol that would transcend cultural boundaries and convey an unmistakable, universal message of grief and honor for fallen soldiers. So on Armistice Day 1927, in Arlington National Cemetery, Prime Minister King and US President Calvin Coolidge unveiled a cross.

Today, seventy-nine years and several wars later, the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice still stands tall, with inscriptions honoring soldiers in three conflicts — World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

It has company in the Argonne Cross, another tribute to World War I casualties. Like its Canadian counterpart, this cross stands alone, in a section set aside for those who perished during the War’s final offensive, the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Campaign that cost more US lives — 26,277 — than any other battle in American history.

Curiously, in an aggressively atheistic era that frequently sees the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups suing to remove crosses from sacred settings all over the US, these Arlington crosses remain untouched and unchallenged.

Why? Because, in the collective imagination of Americans, Arlington is still hallowed ground. A lawsuit against these memorials would be a public-relations nightmare.

On the other hand, ignoring these crosses while attacking so many others exposes a double standard.

The ACLU tries to obscure its hypocrisy with a statement posted on its website:

Religious symbols on grave markers in military cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery, are entirely constitutional. Religious symbols on personal gravestones are vastly different from government-sponsored religious symbols or religious symbols on government-owned property.

The last sentence is of particular interest when one considers the Canadian and Argonne crosses. Neither marks a personal grave; both are government-sponsored and stand on government-owned property. According to the ACLU’s own specifications, both crosses violate the “separation of church and state.”

The hypocrisies multiply. What to do about the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military decoration given by the United States Army? Or the Navy Cross, or the Air Force Cross? What prevents the ACLU — or an individual “offended” by the presence of a “sectarian” symbol hanging from a government uniform — from demanding a “cease and desist” against these historic symbols of courage?

The fact is, the more closely one looks at the ACLU’s history with regard to crosses, the harder it is to find a discernible consistency to their convictions.

In 2005, for instance, the Ohio ACLU set its legal sights on a large cross erected in the Mount Vinton Cemetery in Elk Township. According to local media, both the cross (commemorating Korean War veterans) and the plot on which it stood were privately donated to a man named Cy Karns. Nevertheless, an ACLU representative has informed local officials that the situation is “under investigation” and that the cross has to go. Yet the ACLU has reportedly filed no complaints against the “variety of religious symbols” found on other grave markers through the cemetery, including “multiple crosses and a Star of David.”

Farther south, Joe Cook, the head of the ACLU’s Louisiana office, expressed concerns earlier this year about a cross-shaped memorial planned for his state’s Katrina victims. Although the piece is privately funded, has always been slated to stand on private land in St. Bernard Parish, and members of the Parish Council who support it have made it a point to discuss the project on their own personal time, none of that was enough for Cook and the ACLU.

Contesting what he called “government involvement with the endorsement and advancement of this clearly religious symbol,” Cook was apparently convinced that public officials in Louisiana should not be entitled to come within 50 yards of anything that might be considered religious – even when they aren’t working.

Someone at the ACLU pulled the reins on that particular persecution, but the organization is still pressing hard to remove a fifty-year-old cross from Mount Soledad, in San Diego, and a seventy-year-old cross from the Mojave Desert National Preserve. Similar lawsuits are in motion all over the country.

Clearly, the ACLU’s commitment to civil liberties stands at cross purposes to its own anti-Christian prejudices. What’s more, its agenda is as changeable as the political winds because its leaders don’t have the courage to nail down their convictions.

That makes the ACLU something less than a bastion of legal idealism. More like a bully, just looking for a fight it can win.

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