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When does a cross cease to represent Christianity and become a secular symbol? According to Justice Antonin Scalia, when it’s used for a war memorial.

As Susan Jacoby, the Washington Post ’s resident atheist, reports :

In oral arguments this month in the case of Salazar v. Buono,, which concerns the constitutionality of a 5-foot cross on federal government land in the Mojave National Preserve, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that the cross is a universal, rather than a Christian, symbol. When American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Peter Eliasberg suggested that a less controversial World War I memorial might consist of “a statue of a soldier which would honor all of the people who fought for America in World War I,” Scalia asked, “The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war?” Eliasberg replied, “A cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins.” Scalia, a devoutly conservative Roman Catholic replied indignantly, “It’s erected as a war memorial! I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of . . . of . . . of the resting places of the dead.” Uh, not exactly. It is not the most common symbol of the resting places of the dead in Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu countries. It never appears in Jewish cemeteries—a piece of information that Scalia seemed stunned to hear. “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead,” Scalia said in an outraged tone.

There are few occasions when I’d side with Jacoby over Scalia, but in this case she’s absolutely right. Scalia is one of the sharpest legal intellects of our age so maybe he’s making a point that is beyond my ability to grasp. Nevertheless, as a simply matter of theology I don’t think he could be more wrong.

What do you think? Does the cross, when placed in a cemetery, cease to represent the sacrifice of Christ and become a universal symbol for the dead?

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