The cross is a universal symbol of the Christian faith, displayed around the world in churches and homes. It brings people hope in violent times or memorializing those killed in the line of duty, and reminds believers of the power of faith when they spot it on a steeple or a friend's necklace.
But the cross can also be controversial. Its presence on public land has been challenged by secularists many times in America as a violation of the First Amendment's separation of church and state, most recently in New York City, San Diego and the Mojave Desert.
The New York case centers on a cross displayed at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that it would be allowed to stay.
"The three-judge panel (ruled) … that the cross recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center was more of a genuine historical artifact than a symbol of Christianity," New York Daily News reported.
Judge Reena Raggi explained in the court's decision that the design for the display of the cross illustrates the museum's intention to have it stand for more than Christian belief. "While the cross at Ground Zero … is a religious symbol that was used in connection with religious rituals at the attack site, the accompanying textual panel is plainly historical rather than theological in recounting the facts of discovery and subsequent use," she wrote.
American Atheists first filed the suit in 2011, claiming that the cross caused its members "headaches, indigestion and mental pain," Religion News Service reported. The group asserted that displaying the religious symbol in a museum partly funded by public funds was unconstitutional.
After the lawsuit was dismissed in 2013, the group revised its claim on appeal, asking that only a plaque acknowledging the atheists who died on 9/11 be added to the cross display. But the appellate found no need to alter a display designed to recognize the cross' historical, not religious, significance.
The Ground Zero cross became a symbol of hope in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers. "The 17-foot cross in the museum was erected by rescue and recovery workers, and built from intersecting steel beams," CNN explained. It is now one of the 1,000 artifacts on display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
Other cases have similarly hinged upon the dual role of the cross as a symbol of faith and an item of remembrance.
In San Diego, the Mt. Soledad cross has been the center of a legal fight for more than six years. The Los Angeles Timesexplained that the ultimate decision will depend upon what the court sees as the cross' purpose. The 43-foot cross is surrounded by plaques honoring veterans.
"The issue is whether the cross is a war memorial that should be allowed to remain, or an improper endorsement of a specific religion that should be removed," the L.A. Times reported.
Mark Silk wrote for Religion News Service about San Diego's Mt. Soledad cross and the legality of religious displays in general in December, noting that the laws surrounding public display of religious symbols are currently "in flux."
"For now … the operative principle is that displays on public land are impermissible if they suggest a government endorsement or preference for a particular religious belief or practice," Silk concluded.
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