Monday, February 22, 2016

The Constitutionality of Religious Memorials on Public Property

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest national non-profit organization which actively promotes the separation of church and state, claimed that a memorial cross that was implanted in the Seneca water treatment plant functions as the government's unconstitutional establishment of religion. A construction worker was inadvertently killed on the job. Consequently, the city of Seneca inserted a cross in the rock wall, using the same type of stones to do so, which made the cross almost indistinguishable. In addition to the cross' concealment in the wall, the wall is located behind a building at the end of a dead-end street, making the cross completely unnoticeable from the street. The city of Seneca asserts that the cross is meant to serve the sole purpose of commemorating a construction worker who suffered and died on the job. An objection sent to the city of Seneca's manager, Greg Dietterick, said that due to the fact that the memorial is exhibited on public grounds, the city must show religious neutrality in its means of honoring the deceased. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed several other complaints regarding the government's failure of separating church from state. In recent news, although they were unsuccessful in their efforts, the non-profit organization accused the Clemson University football coach of endorsing a team philosophy that violated the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. In another case, the organization was successful in creating a policy that banned prayer during meetings at the Pickens County School Board.

In this case, the organization claims that the city's use of a Latin cross is considered to be "a sectarian religious statement." To make matters worse, the cross implanted in the rock wall has no plate, inscription, or other sign of its argued purpose- commemorating someone's life rather than the city's establishment of Christianity. Additionally, The Freedom From Religion Foundation states that if the city of Seneca did include some sort of marking on the cross to make it appear as a memorial for the worker, the cross would still be unconstitutional. They argue that the reasoning behind this claim is that a federal court previously decided that crosses along a road that clearly honored the deceased were "unconstitutional, despite being privately maintained and despite the government disclaiming them." In addition, the symbol of the Latin cross is intrinsically religious. The irrefutable message of endorsing Christianity that the cross carries outweighs anyone's claim that the symbol of the cross is being merely used for a secular purpose. This raises the question- does the cross memorial that is displayed on public property serve as the city of Seneca's advancement of a particular religion and thus violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Although not explicitly stated in the article, I believe that the federal court's decision that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is referring to is concerning the Mount Soledad controversy in San Diego, California. In 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a memorial cross was unconstitutional due to it being a "distinctly Christian symbol." However, in July of 2015, after twenty five years of litigation and controversy, the United States Department of Defense sold the piece of public land on which the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial was located. I strongly believe that the case in Seneca should be treated the same way as the case in San Diego was. Although one may argue that the memorial cross embedded in the rock wall is barely noticeable and is not even visible from the road, the city's action of displaying a Latin cross on public property, regardless of its "secular purpose" is still considered unconstitutional and should be viewed as a violation of the establishment clause. The reason why it should be deemed unconstitutional is it being located on public, not private property. The display of a religious symbol on public land is a symbol of the government's advancement of that religion. There are other ways that the government can display a memorial for the construction worker that are religiously neutral. The city of Seneca could have easily embedded a stone in the wall with an "in loving memory" plague to commemorate the worker's life and commitment to the community. This would have still achieved the secular purpose of the memorial without creating any religious controversy.


Samantha Woolford said...

I agree that having a Latin cross on this public ground is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While it is sad that a worker died while trying to complete this job, I think that having a cross (on something that is sanctioned by the government) is unconstitutional. Any type of affiliation with religion would be violating the separation between church and state. I agree that the company could have simply put a plaque saying, "In Loving Memory of...", and that would have sufficed.

Lauren Caldas said...

Although I do understand your reasoning behind why this cross is unconstitutional, I disagree. The cross has no other symbols or words that are linked to religious references and it merely blends into the layout of the stone wall. Crosses are a common symbol used to commemorate someone who has passed away and they do not always allude to a direct, religiously affiliated message. The cross, although on public property, is not easily seen and therefore is not disrupting the view of people who do not want to see it on a regular basis. There is no direct reference to a particular religious sect and it does not overly obstruct public view, so it should not be seen as unconstitutional.

Caroline S. said...

I have to agree with this particular ruling because crosses have come to distinctly represent a sectarian religious affiliation. I think it is tragic that the cross will have to be taken down despite its commemorative value, however I agree with Samantha's viewpoint that there could have been a more secular commemoration created. Although this seems to be an unfair advantage for secular memorials over religious memorials- a cross memorial does not represent all religions, but is a distinct marker of a particular sect. Perhaps they could buy a small piece of land close to the construction site to reconstruct a cross memorial, however I do not believe that religious symbols should be permitted on public grounds.

Liz S. said...

I agree with all the points already made that this cross is an establishment of religion. I disagree with Lauren in her thinking that crosses are not always a direct reference to religion- in this case the cross is a Latin cross which is almost always used as a representation of Christianity.The Seneca water treatment plant is public land and is I imagine is funded and controlled by the government. Therefore, for the city of Seneca to allow this cross to have been embedded into the wall is a clear breech of separation of church and state, and it is establishing religion. I do not know for sure if the construction worker or his family is Christian or not, but I imagine they are; thus, would they have inserted a cross into the wall if the construction worker was Jewish? I would find this hard to believe. Because the cross was most likely placed with religious intent as a memorial to this dead construction worker, it is most certainly a form of establishment of religion and should not be allowed. I agree with Caroline completely, however, that this is tragic the cross will be taken down, but there are other ways to remember and pay tribute to the construction worker.