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First Liberty Institute

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Memorial Day is a time to pause, pray, and remember by visiting one of the many monuments to America’s fallen. However, all across the country, many of these edifices of remembrance are currently facing existential legal threats from secularist groups simply because they contain crosses, Bibles, or other religious symbols.

Take, for instance, recent pushes to have Bibles removed from POW/MIA “missing man” tables on federal property.

The practice of leaving an open, prepared spot at a table dates back to the Vietnam era and is meant to serve as a solemn reminder of those who are missing in action or have been taken prisoners of war. Usually, Bibles — which represent the “strength gained through faith to sustain us and those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God” — can be found alongside empty plates and untouched silverware.

But advocates of the “separation of church and state” now deem this as a violation of the United States Constitution and have sued to have the Bibles removed from public displays.

In April, Fox News reported that at least three Veterans Affairs health care centers and one Air Force base have complied with demands from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group opposed to displays of any religious symbol in the military whatsoever, to remove Bibles from tables on federal property.

The administration’s acquiescence to MRFF’s demands, however, has not gone unnoticed. Letters sent by congressmen and conservative non-profit organizations express grave concerns about the removal of scripture from the missing man ceremony and display.

“The removal of the Bible not only violates the integrity of these displays, but insults those returned POWs who gained daily strength from their faith in the prisons of our enemies,” the non-profit groups wrote. “When a governmental agency such as the VA removes any part of the display, it is a grave insult to the nation’s veterans who often gather together to honor those who have not returned, while also interfering with the message being expressed.”

Their argument, taken to its logical conclusion, means that Arlington Cemetery must be bulldozed and whitewashed of any religious symbols.

“MRFF is one of several anti-religion organizations that are seeking to eradicate any public place in America from having any type of religious symbol or religious imagery, regardless of the purpose or nature of the display of the memorial,” explained Michael Berry, Senior Counsel & Director of Military Affairs at First Liberty Institute, during a phone interview with CR.

Berry contends that while the missing man table “is a totally appropriate way to honor and remember those who have been lost or captured, the mere fact that one of many symbols on the table happens to be a religious symbol has caused these anti-religious organizations and anti-religious freedom organizations to go on the offensive against them.”

But in addition to the VA’s capitulation to demands to sterilize POW/MIA displays of anything spiritual, the United States is also beset with a practice that seems as popular among atheist activists as it is in the atheist government of the People’s Republic of China: cross removal.

A search of recent headlines shows that just like the aforementioned bibles, crosses big and small, displayed alone or in a large collection have earned the scorn of those who say they shouldn’t be displayed on public land.

Most recently, a judge in Texas ruled against an atheist activist who claimed that a large cross under construction in the City of Corpus Christi was unconstitutional since public officials attended its groundbreaking ceremony.

Also in Texas, the City of Port Neches sold land around a publicly displayed cross monument to a local church in order to avoid a similar lawsuit from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The town of Hiram, Georgia, also recently took down a cross memorial to fallen veterans following a call from an unnamed citizen who complained that all of those honored might not have been Christian, according to a report at the Washington Times.

In Iowa, a similar monument in the town of Albia has come under fire from atheist groups due to, you guessed it, the fact that Latin crosses are present on public land. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has defended the memorial, saying that the white crosses “remind [him] of Normandy.

Still under adjudication is the case of a 40-foot cross in the town of Bladensburg, Maryland.  More commonly known as the “Peace Cross,” the monument, which was erected following World War I has been locked in a years-long legal battle initiated by the American Humanist Association. The group claims that the cross “carries an inherently religious message and creates the unmistakable appearance of honoring only Christian servicemen.”

“That was put there by the parents of World War I veterans who lost their sons in combat,” explained Berry, whose organization is defending the monument, in response to AHA’s claims. “There was even a statement by one of the mothers who said that she saw the monument as her son’s gravestone.”

While the cross was ruled constitutional by the United States District Court for the District of Maryland in November, the AHA has appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit.

While such cases are prevalent throughout the United States, their complaints and attacks rest upon a “misinformed reading” of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which says that the federal government shall not establish any religion as the official state religion, according to Berry, who also says that the arguments groups like the MRFF and FFRF have used could lead to some very disturbing implications, if taken to their natural end.

“They take such a narrow view of the law and of our Constitution and the Establishment Clause, such that the only logical conclusion is that there could be no religious symbols ever in public, even within public view,” explains Berry. “The inevitable question becomes how they would respond to Arlington National Cemetery, which has the Argonne Cross and the Canadian Cross of sacrifice. What about the religious symbols on the headstones themselves?

“Arlington Cemetery is a public place, and those are religious symbols. Their argument, taken to its logical conclusion, means that Arlington Cemetery must be bulldozed and whitewashed of any religious symbols.”

In addition to being logically problematic, says Berry, the position held by these atheist groups has already been struck down by the Supreme Court, which has upheld the constitutionality of memorials containing religious symbols on public land.

I’ve lost friends in combat, and to know what they stood for, the freedoms that they fought for and to see groups that want to strip those freedoms away from the very people who fought for those freedoms is deplorable.

The most recent example of this was Van Orden v. Perry, a 2005 Supreme Court case out of Texas which upheld the Lone Star State’s right to display the Ten Commandments on public ground. It also established a jurisprudential balancing test for religious symbols on public land.

“The court declined to apply the typical establishment clause analysis that people like the MRFF and FFRF want to employ in these cases,” said Berry. The idea that any display of any religious symbol on public land is somehow an establishment of religion is a limited and “binary” way of looking at the case, he added.

“If you look at the Supreme Court’s rationale in Van Orden v. Perry, they said the appropriate analysis for monuments on public grounds is actually threefold,” he explained. “You look at the purpose of the monument, the history of the monument, and then the context in which the monument sits.”

Put simply, in the Van Orden case, the Court ruled that since the Ten Commandments were presented in the context of being a legal document among several others which have informed current Texas law, the monument did not constitute an establishment of religion and was therefore constitutional. According to Berry, similar legal analysis has been applied to things like nativity displays, based on their temporary nature and their presentation alongside other secular and religious symbols associated with the holiday season.

Likewise, the Ninth Circuit Court, often criticized for left-leaning activist rulings, used similar legal reasoning to uphold the constitutionality of “Big Mountain Jesus,” a war memorial in Montana which came under fire from the FFRF.

While his organization has a long track record of defending such memorials, they also carry a great deal of personal importance for Berry, who is himself an Afghanistan veteran.

“It disheartening and very disappointing to see attacks on something that is meant to honor the selfless service and sacrifice, particularly of those who paid the full measure of devotion to our nation, to see those under attack,” he says. “Whether those are a memorial or a POW/MIA display, it’s sickening to see it. I’ve lost friends in combat, and to know what they stood for, the freedoms that they fought for and to see groups that want to strip those freedoms away from the very people who fought for those freedoms is deplorable.”

Nate Madden is a Staff Writer for Conservative Review, focusing on religion and culture. He previously served as the Director of Policy Relations for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. A John Jay Fellow, Citadel Parliamentary Fellow and National Journalism Center alumnus, Nate has previously written for World Magazine, The Washington Times, Catholic News Service, Patheos, Ethika Politika, and The Christian Post. Follow him @NateMadden_IV.