All of our service members and their families, regardless of their religious beliefs, make incredible sacrifices to protect the American freedoms we hold dear. As a military chaplain for 30 years, it was my job and my privilege to provide advice and counsel to men and women of all faiths and none. I’m ordained as a Methodist pastor, but during my service in the military, I ministered to the spiritual and emotional needs of all America’s service members — Christians and non-Christians alike.
Those qualities of equality and fairness should be infused in our memorials to our veterans as well, with no one left behind. Unfortunately, a public memorial on the outskirts of Washington — known as the Peace Cross — does not treat veterans of all faiths equally. Instead, this towering, 40-foot-tall Latin cross on public land memorializes the sacrifices of Christian veterans, but ignores those who are not Christian.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments as to whether this cross in Bladensburg, Md., violates one of our country’s fundamental principles about religious freedom — that the government should not favor one faith above others or promote religion over nonreligion. I don’t know how displaying the preeminent symbol of Christianity on public land could be viewed as anything other than government favoring one religion. But even more troubling is that this cross demonstrates government favoring veterans of a particular faith over all other veterans — a grave disservice to the thousands of non-Christian veterans who honorably served our country and its ideals of equality and freedom.
The private citizens who originally had the idea to erect the Bladensburg cross in 1925 had the best of intentions – they wanted to pay tribute to American service members who were killed in World War I. But unfortunately, they chose a symbol that fails to include everyone.
If the cross had been raised on private property, in a cemetery, or in a churchyard, it would be a lovely and appropriate tribute. But the cross is not on private property — it stands at the intersection of several major highways on publicly owned land maintained with taxpayer dollars. Further complicating matters, the state-commissioned agency that owns the cross rededicated it in 1985 as a memorial for “all” veterans. But a Christian cross simply cannot represent all veterans.
Our country and our military are wonderfully diverse, and that includes a rich plurality of religious beliefs. Christians of all denominations, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, nonbelievers, and people with many other spiritual beliefs serve in our military and live in our communities. How can we expect non-Christian military veterans and their families to view this explicitly Christian memorial as anything other than a public testament to the value our government places on the service of Christian veterans only? How can we expect non-Christians who live in Bladensburg to see an immense Christian cross on public land as anything other than evidence of our government respecting and welcoming only certain religious beliefs?
I’m profoundly grateful to all the men and women who have fought and died to protect our country’s most deeply held values — including the principle of religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution. Their sacrifice ensures that my church, Hibernia United Methodist in Coatesville, has the freedom to proudly display the cross and other Christian symbols that have deep meaning to me and my congregation. We owe it to our veterans to offer them the same respect for their religious and spiritual beliefs. One simple way we can do that is by creating and maintaining public memorials that honor and include all of our veterans, not just some of them.