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A secular symbol

Dominador Awiten .

IN a very recent decision (June 20, 2019), the United States Supreme Court ruled that a religious symbol such as the Christian Cross may be of constitutional validity when it is intended as a commemoration of the heroism of soldiers in a war. 

The succinct, courageous majority opinion penned by Justice Samuel Alito held: “Where monuments, symbols, and practices with a longstanding history follow in the tradition of the First [US] Congress in respecting and tolerating different views, endeavoring to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and recognizing the important role religion plays in the lives of [people], they are  constitutional.”

We may read in Wikipedia that “the Bladensburg World War I Memorial, more commonly referred to as the Peace Cross, [is] located in the three-way junction of Bladensburg Road, Baltimore Avenue, and Annapolis Road in Bladensburg, Maryland.”

The 40-foot cross was erected on public land, as a memorial to men of Prince George’s County, Maryland,  who had died in World War 1. Later, it has been maintained by the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission, although the American Legion retained the right to have use of the memorial.

The litigation started in 2014 when the American Humanist Association, with others of like mind, filed suit, alleging that the Cross’s presence on public land and the Commission’s maintenance of the memorial violate the so-called Establishment Clause.

The United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, reversing the District Court, ruled that the Peace Cross was unconstitutional applying the tests in the previous ruling in the case of Lemon versus Kurtzman (June 28, 1971).

The three-pronged tests are:

• The statute must have a secular legislative purpose. (Also known as the Purpose Prong)

• The principal or primary effect of the statute must neither advance nor inhibit religion. (Also known as the Effect Prong)

• The statute must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion. (Also known as the Entanglement Prong)

Any of the tests may render a government act under question to be invalid.

The Alito ponencia reversed the appeals court ruling. It said that the cross has taken on for many a secular meaning because of its age, its continuity, and the historical context of World War I.

Such secular meaning includes the sense that the cross had become “a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home, a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for the Nation, and a historical landmark.”  

“Removing it (or forcing its transfer to private hands) would seem hostile to religion.” This goes against the constitutional precept to foster religious liberty.

The ruling is characteristic of the mind-set of the Republican appointed justices, with Justice Alito considered to be of ultra conservative bent.

In the critics’ view, the majority opinion is “sheer rationalization.” 

Further, instead of being celebrated, “it should be mourned as a political misappropriation of a powerful symbol of Jesus’ redemptive death.”

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted: “The First Amendment to the Constitution demands governmental neutrality among religious faiths, and between religion and nonreligion. Today the Court erodes that neutrality commitment.”

Our Supreme Court has, in the main, hewed closely with the ebb and flow of American jurisprudence. 

What we may consider as comparable to the US Supreme Court ruling is the decision in the case of Aglipay v. Ruiz, G.R. No. L-45459  (March 13, 1937) in which the Supreme Head of the Philippine Independent Church asked the Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition to prevent the respondent Director of Posts from issuing and selling postage stamps commemorative of the Thirty-third International Eucharistic Congress that was organized by the Roman Catholic Church.

In his ponencia, Justice Jose P. Laurel wrote:

“It is obvious that while the issuance and sale of the stamps in question may be said to be inseparably linked with an event of a religious character, the resulting propaganda, if any, received by the Roman Catholic Church, was not the aim and purpose of the Government. We are of the opinion that the Government should not be embarrassed in its activities simply because of incidental results, more or less religious in character, if the purpose had in view is one which could legitimately be undertaken by appropriate legislation. The main purpose should not be frustrated by its subordinate to mere incidental results not contemplated.”


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TREND MAKER. Mindanao Gold Star Daily was established in 1989 to set ablaze a new meaning & flame to the local newspaper business. Throughout the years it continued its focus and interest in the rural areas & pioneered the growth of countryside journalism.

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