But a few cranky, persnickety, hairsplitting secularists say, with religious zeal, that the cross is now on public land, so the establishment clause is violated. A district court affirmed the obvious: Honoring the war dead is a secular purpose. But a divided three-judge circuit court panel reversed. Engaging in something akin to Jesuitical casuistry, two judges said a cross must everywhere and always be a primarily symbol of Jesus’ death, and because government provides maintenance for the plot in the roundabout, this cross excessively entangles government with religion.
In 1984, the court added an “endorsement” consideration: Would a common-sensical observer of a government display that includes a symbol with religious overtones — an observer knowing how the display came about — think the government is using it to “endorse” religion? In 1989, the court sidled even closer to wisdom, with a “coercion” criterion. Rather than ignite tens of thousands of skirmishes aimed at scrubbing all visual religious references from this nation’s public spaces (including the names of Corpus Christi, Tex., and Las Cruces, N.M.), let’s say this: Religion is not “established” when a passive monument on government property in no way coerces reasonable, informed passersby to believe, practice or support religion.
It was for reasons of traffic safety that the government in 1961 acquired the ground on which the Bladensburg cross sits. If, 58 years later, a few people in this age of hair-trigger rage choose to be offended by a long-standing monument reflecting the nation’s culture and traditions, those people, not the First Amendment, need help.