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It is the sound of a Supreme Court case being argued. In this case, the issue is the separation of church and state, and the one-handed clappers are a guy who wants to put a Buddhist shrine next to an ad hoc war memorial, and a catholic park ranger.

The background: 1934: Some World War One veterans erect a cross in Mojave National Preserve to commemorate those who died in the War. 1990s: A Buddhist applies to the government to erect a shrine near the cross, and is denied; an ex-Park Service employee starts a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the religious symbol standing on government land (note: the plaintiff is himself a practicing catholic). In the meantime, members of Congress attempt to short-circuit the issue by swapping the acre around the memorial for private land. A judge rules this to be ineffectual, as the cross is in a “donut hole” within the government preserve.

The present: The United States Supreme Court heard the case last week. Debate was apparently lively. The world awaits the Court’s decision.

For around 60 years no one cared about this. The memorial stood there, tended by supporters, and was either noticed or ignored by passersby. There was no controversy. Then the Age of Pointless Contention began, wherein that which is trivial becomes critical. And there was litigation, and it was Bad.

Had this memorial been attacked on the grounds that the original erectors had no permission to put it up, that would be one thing. But to claim a church/state conflict seems not only pointless, but dangerous. Why not sue over all those religious symbols in military cemeteries? And of course we come right back to the fact that God is mentioned on our money. It could go on and on.

This memorial is not for the purpose of worship, nor for the purpose of promoting religion. It is an historical artifact, and is expressed appropriately for its place and time. There are few people in the U.S. more insistent of the separation of church and state as I am, but sometimes we must realize this law is not intended to inhibit freedom of expression; rather it is intended to keep the government or any interest group from imposing a single religious doctrine as a matter of policy. Removing tablets featuring the Ten Commandments from court houses is wholly appropriate under the law. Removing the spontaneous expression of respect for fallen war dead, expressed by the citizenry without resort to coercion or intent to proselytize, is not appropriate.

Now, having said that, how do we deal with the desire of our Buddhist friend to put his shrine on the site? Now things get sticky. What is his intent? Is it to memorialize all the dead Buddhist veterans from WWI? Is it intended as a competing icon to offset the Christian symbolism of the cross? And more importantly, where might this lead: A Star of David next; a mini-mosque; and then a souvenir stand and a parking lot? There’s more to this than the perceived violation of the separation of church and state – there’s the land-use issue, and the insurance liability, and the dozens of lawyers who smell a buck in all that.

The erection of the ad-hoc war memorial was a one-off thing, done by local people in a local context. As regards the separation of church and state, there is no conflict. On the grounds of land-use, however, it might be better to head-off the sprawl that could result from letting people put up any more icons or memorials. If that means the cross comes down, so be it. Otherwise take the box off the thing, say out loud “this is a historical artifact”, and then maybe post a “Keep Out” sign – a venerated legal icon.

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