Paul Kengor: Religious symbols & the Ruth Bader Ginsburg standard
I wrote a few weeks ago about one of the major Supreme Court decisions due up in the current term — the Bladensburg cross case, in which secularists demanded the tearing down of a large cross that serves as the centerpiece of a veterans’ memorial in Bladensburg, Md., erected in 1925 by Gold Star mothers in honor of their fallen boys who paid the ultimate sacrifice in World War I. The secularists wanted the cross bulldozed because it’s a religious symbol on government property.
Even more offensive was the suggestion of the judge who ruled against the cross. During oral arguments in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Stephanie Thacker asked the attorney defending the memorial: “What about … my suggestion of chopping the arms off?”
Yes, slice the arms from the cross and it could stay.
The case went all the way to the high court. Mercifully, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 in favor of the cross. Half of the court’s liberals (Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan) joined the court’s moderates and conservatives. The two who dissented were Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
The ruling is a victory for tolerance, decency and common sense, and against anti-religious hostility. But what I found most interesting about the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, and the minority opinion, written by Ginsburg, is this:
I had written in my column that if these secular forces want to establish a standard of taking the wrecking ball to large religious symbols on government property, they better be careful what they wish for. Sure, they had a cross in their crosshairs, but the Christian cross isn’t the only religious symbol on public property. I asked: Are there any large Stars of David on government property that we should now express outrage over? Should we launch a nationwide search to put them on the chopping block?
Interestingly, the court majority pointed to such examples, notably a Star of David monument erected in South Carolina to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, as well as the Philadelphia Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs, which depicts a burning bush, Torah scrolls, and a blazing menorah.
Hmm. What about those, Justice Ginsburg? Going by your standard, it’s time to remove these monuments, too, or at least cut out the religious portions.
Bear in mind that such an action would be sickening, an outrage, and I’d personally stand in solidarity with a group of rabbis chaining myself to the memorial. But, hey, this isn’t my standard.
“As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content,” wrote Ginsburg, in a flatly erroneous assumption of mistaken intent in the Bladensburg case.
Let’s apply Ginsburg’s logic to the Jewish memorials in South Carolina and Philadelphia: “As I see it, when a Star of David is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content.”
Do Ginsburg and Sotomayor still feel that way now that it’s a Star of David we’re talking about?
One genuinely wonders if Ginsburg and Sotomayor and their secular-left friends actually realize what they’re doing, if they’re cognizant of the standard they’re establishing, wittingly or unwittingly.
Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and chief academic fellow of the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College.