Memorials for All? Government and Religious Expression

The issue of establishment of religion by the government is in the news again, this time dealing with a library in New Jersey. As reported here, a monument to veterans and fallen soldiers, paid for by the local mayor was installed without notifying the library, on whose property the memorial was to be installed. The mayor apparently was acting as a private resident when he had it installed without any discussion about whether or not it was appropriate.  The monument is composed of a silhouette of a soldier kneeling in front of a cross, which some in the community took issue with, as having it on public property and paid for by the town government violates the establishment clause. One resident was quoted as saying, “It’s a very touching memorial, but the problem is there’s a cross in it. It singles out veterans of one religion, and in doing so ignored and disrespects veterans of all other religions, or no religion.” The resident then notified the American Humanist Association of the violation.

Having only a cross that represents a specific type of soldier, while excluding non-Christian soldiers from the memorial, shows that as Christianity in its many forms is the majority religion here in America, it is seen as the default position for memorials and other such monuments. Therefore, I feel it is often assumed that other members of the society have no objections to this. This sort of incident happens all the time, more often centering around Christmas, and how the minority groups who are not Christians are conducting a “war on Christmas” by trying to make the holiday season more inclusive and not only showing Christian iconography and including symbols of the other holidays that take place at the time, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

I am sure that these sort of things happen all year round around the country, but not all of them are reported on. Trying to be inclusive is always positive, but one should not assume that there would be no objections to such a memorial, even if the idea was for the cross to represent a generalized religion and not necessarily Christianity. By choosing to only have a cross, it disrespects members of other or no faith traditions, both in the military as well as outside of the military.  If it had been on private land that would be a completely different matter, but it is on government property.

The councilwoman, whose husband raised the original objection to the memorial, was quoted as saying during the meeting about whether to keep the memorial as is,

“If it is not religious, what is the problem with putting up, virtually, the same monument but without the cross? If the cross is the sticking point then that is reflecting a religious concern. I put my hand on the Constitution to support the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution does not stop at the boundaries of Roselle Park.”

Memorials to fallen soldiers are perfectly warranted and acceptable, but the issue starts when it is an official government sponsored memorial that excludes people who are non-Christians, as it promotes Christianity as the only acceptable expression of faith in such a situation. This is also apparently not the first time the mayor and members of the council and residents in Roselle Park have had issues surrounding religious matters; therefore, I find it unlikely that the mayor did not know what he would be starting by installing this monument. Issues like this show why it is important to have a clause in the constitution that mandates that the government writ large cannot interfere in religious matters, either for or against particular traditions.

As an aside, I find it very interesting that there are official guidelines from the government about what symbols are acceptable on military gravestones and other markers. This is to be  expected as these are for national and other cemeteries such as the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the government is involved in legislating religious expression in this way, as only these symbols are allowed but not other ones. It is good, of course, that the government is recognizing that there are many non-Christian members of the military for whom crosses would be an affront, which might not have always been the case.

As of this writing, the town council has voted to keep the memorial in place as is, even over objections that cited the Constitutional issues involved. There were also offers to include symbols of other faiths to counteract the exclusionary nature of the memorial, which were rejected.  The next council meeting is September 1st , and I am very interested in seeing what happens.

<em>Image Source:<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fort_logan_national_cemetery_4.jpg"> 
Tony Massey via Wikimedia Commons</a></em>
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4 thoughts on “Memorials for All? Government and Religious Expression

  1. I am always glad to see attention drawn to these situations when they arise because, being an adherent of a minority religion myself, I find it very important to raise awareness of the diversity of America’s religious landscape and to emphasize the strengths and value in that diversity.

    I also think it is very important, however, to be clear about matters of constitutional law. The Establishment Clause specifies that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This means, quite literally, that the federal congress cannot declare a given religion to be the official religion of the United States or legally privilege a particular church as an apparatus of the state (with reference, in very technical terms, to the way in which the Church of England is “established” in the United Kingdom). It does not mean that the government cannot support various kinds of religious exercise without establishing them, and up through the early 20th century Congress did routinely vote funds to support missionary efforts on the frontier, printings of the Bible for impoverished rural communities, and other similar projects. It also does not mean that there is a constitutional restriction on the actions of states or local communities; the prohibition applies only to the federal congress.

    The US Constitution thus has no bearing on the issue of this memorial. The State Constitution of New Jersey does, but it specifies only that “There shall be no establishment of one religious sect in preference to another…” and this is not, in the technical sense envisaged by US law, an establishment of religion—it’s just a myopically designed statue. There are certainly issues of tolerance and inclusion here. There are issues of cultural sensitivity and awareness. There are issues of community-building. But there are not constitutional issues.

    1. Dear Race,

      Thank you for your insightful comments. The issues of cultural sensitivity and community building are also of vital importance, especially in the current political climate here. Most people, myself included, seem to understand the Establishment clause to mean that it applies to the entire government, whether Federal or state/local, so I thank you for correcting my understanding. As of Friday, October 7, the town council voted unanimously to take down the statue, as reported here: http://6abc.com/news/nj-town-to-remove-veterans-statue-with-christian-cross-amid-suit/1544550/

      Best,
      Eli

      1. Eli,

        Thanks for your reply! I’m glad to hear that cultural sensitivity is going to be respected in this case, though I wish it wouldn’t take a lawsuit to do it. My concern is always that one element of the community being so quick to draw on the law to make its case puts the other on the defensive, and thus obscures the deeper issues of respect for neighbor and community building that ought to be sufficient for negotiating something like this all by themselves. If only they more often were!

        -Race

  2. I agree. It would certainly be a good thing if situations like this were resolved without recourse to legal arguments, but I do think that in cases where one or both parties are being intransigent, such attempts may be the only way to resolve the situation. Understanding the positions of other parties is what interfaith dialogue is about, and I see attempts at understanding and communicating as increasingly important in the current climate-political and otherwise-especially here in the US.

    -Eli

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