In this 2017 file photo, people in New York City carry the U.S. flag. (Eduardo Munoz, Reuters | CNS)

Constitutional debate hovers around Pensacola cross right to exist

ORLANDO  |  A community in Pensacola’s much-heated lawsuit concerning America’s constitutional obligation to keep the government away from religious practices will be examined once again. 

At the heart of the lawsuit — the Bayview Park cross. In 2017, a Florida federal district judge ruled that the Pensacola cross violated the Constitution and ordered its removal from the park. An appeals court attempted to sway opinion, but was overruled in 2018.

While the lawsuit stems from 2016, it has ties to a similar case involving another cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, which recently won approval from the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7-2 ruling, the 40-foot Bladensburg Peace Cross, a World War I memorial erected in 1919 with 49 names of deceased soldiers who died in Europe, will stay overlooking a highway.

In the Bladensburg case, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito sided with the presence of the monument, noting it hadn’t ever violated the Constitution because of its almost hundred-year existence and various meanings it still represents to the public. 

“The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent,” Alito said. “A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine, will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”

One opposer on the panel, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote: “Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation.” 

The Maryland decision is paramount for not only the Bayview Cross, but for future religious markers in the U.S., as well. Pensacola attorneys filed a “friend of the court” brief with the Maryland situation, encouraging the courts ruling. 

Monica Miller, senior counsel at the American Humanist Association, believes the Pensacola case will fall because Maryland’s Bladensburg Peace Cross was created as a war memorial and is among many other monuments of various faiths. The Bayview Cross stands alone.

“It sends a message to non-Christian citizens that they are not welcome in this community and that they are less-favored by the government than their Christian counterparts,” she said of the 34-foot cross erected in 1941. “We remain confident in our legal position given the still firmly settled precedent finding religious displays maintained for exclusively religious purposes unconstitutional.”

Examination of both cases displays how religious freedom is interwoven in life in the United States. The ongoing argument regarding religious tolerance in America should come as no surprise. Recently, the Pew Research Center’s annual report on restrictions on religion worldwide showed the United States had the worst scores in the Americas in three of the eight categories Pew surveyed.

The U.S. scores in five of the eight categories examined by Pew were worse than they were in 2007, the first year Pew started researching the subject.

On a scale where 0 is best and 10 is worst, the U.S. score on individual and social group hostilities soared from 3.3 in 2007 to 8.4 in 2017 — the most recent year studied — which qualified as the highest in the region. 

Also ranked as worst in the Americas were the U.S. scores on limits on religious activity, which jumped in the decade from 1.9 to 6.7, and hostilities by organized groups, which rose from 2.8 to 5.8.

While not qualifying as a regional worst, the U.S. score on hostilities related to religious norms, which had been 0.0 in 2007, ran up to 4.0 by 2017. “We’ve seen a gradual increase in the U.S. social hostility score overall,” said Pew research associate Samirah Majumdar, the primary researcher for the report. “And in 2017 there was a particular increase.”

The report noted, “The U.S. also ranked among the highest-scoring countries in this category in 2017, in part because of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists were protesting the removal of a Confederate statue from a park. 

Majumdar told Catholic News Service the rally, during which a counterprotester was murdered, was “counted in our analysis for individual and social group harassment.”

The project is jointly funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation. Researchers annually comb through more than a dozen publicly available, widely cited sources of information, including annual reports on international religious freedom by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as publications by a variety of European and U.N. bodies and several independent, nongovernmental organizations, the report said.

Intolerance for all faiths throughout the world have steadily risen, as well. 

“Government favoritism (of religious groups, one of the eight categories examined by Pew) has barely increased in the Middle East over the course of the study, partly because it started at such a high level that there was not much room for growth on the scale,” the report said. In 2007, the Middle East recorded a 9 out of a 10. In 2017, it rose even more to 9.2. 

Europe, once a positive highpoint for Christian members, had a major increase in societal aggressions related to religious practices, from 0.8 to 3.4, making it the second-worst territory next to the Middle East. 

“In China, for example, only certain religious groups are allowed to register with the government and hold worship services. In order to do this, they must belong to one of five state-sponsored ‘patriotic religious associations’ — Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant. However, there were reports that the Chinese government arrested, tortured and physically abused members of both registered and unregistered religious groups,” Pew said.

Back in Florida, the Bayview Park cross case is currently being reviewed by Florida’s 11th Circuit court. 

“The Supreme Court’s order is an encouraging sign that the Bayview cross can stay in Pensacola just like the Peace Cross can stay in Maryland,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, the law firm representing the Pensacola case. “We fully expect the lower court to follow the Supreme Court’s lead.”