Friday, October 10, 2014

Cross Controversy on Dewey Hill Exposes Misunderstanding About Constitution

(From the October 9, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Dewey Hill, that grass-covered dune, is a focal point of our community and a controversy once again. One or two people are “offended” by the cross that appears on that hill on Sundays

It’s ironic that someone could be offended by something that is meant as an invitation, an offer of hope. They are still free to reject the message of the cross. But their being offended should not preclude others from the right to display the cross. All of this is allowed because of something called free expression, a freedom that some in our society frequently propose be denied to those of Christian faith.

It’s all a big misunderstanding.

At issue is the U.S. Constitution.  People often justify their bigoted exclusion of Christians from the public sphere with the phrase “separation of church and state.” Please know this:  that phrase is NOT in our nation’s founding document.

There is, however, something called the First Amendment, which reads exactly as follows:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It goes on to speak of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right of people to assemble peaceably.

But most folks who argue for separation of church and state utter only the first part of what I quoted. This is known in legal circles as the “establishment clause.” But they ignore the part after the comma, the part about free exercise.  Allowing a cross on Dewey Hill, especially if it is provided and hoisted and funded by local citizens and not the government itself, is certainly not endorsing religion. It is not an example of the government saying, “Hear ye, you all must be Christians and worship the same way.” No. Ridiculous. But not allowing a cross to be displayed on public property violates the constitutionally guaranteed free expression of religion. 

This misunderstanding of the constitution, and misappropriation of a phrase, is disturbing given the intent of our country’s founders. The phrase “wall of separation” is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but not in the Constitution. According to Philip Hamburger, author of the book called “Separation of Church and State,” Jefferson coined the now much-disputed phrase in an 1802 letter to a Baptist congregation concerned about religious liberty. The church was concerned about the government controlling the church, not the reverse. Far from separating church and state, Jefferson himself and others of our nation’s founders frequently and eloquently intertwined the two. Michael Novak points this out in his book, “On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.” It was Jefferson who wrote “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” And in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and other national leaders of the fledgling nation indicated a strong measure of religious faith in opposing the British when they wrote of a “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” 

Legally, others would also have a right. Current complainers want to display messages in favor of hot-button issues, such as pro-abortion and same-sex marriage. This may be offensive to a majority, but Madison warned against a tyranny of the majority and that minority opinion should also have voice.

However, the long court history on free speech refers to the right and responsibility of governments to rein in that which violates a “prevailing community standard’ of decency. That is subjective, to be sure. Grand Haven leaders may also decide not to allow political messages, i.e. words on signs, because it is a visual distraction from the natural beauty of Dewey Hill where only a flag and cross—mere symbols without words—are displayed. The Supreme Court has ruled that speech may be limited if not completely censored by the ‘TPM’ standard. That is to say it can be controlled given certain times, places, and manners of speech.

We’ll have to see what city leaders do on this current issue. But here’s a final point. Whether a cross is displayed on public property or not isn’t the big issue for many Christians.  For millennia governments and religions have had a tenuous coexistence.  But perspective comes from a noble source. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Apostle Paul, a Roman citizen and often persecuted for his Christian faith, wrote to Christians in Rome: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is--nothing. No earthly government can do so, and certainly not the misinterpretation of our modern constitution, whether done out of ignorance or intolerance.

In the end I, and I’m certain many like me, are less concerned about a symbol on Dewey Hill than about the unchanging reality of a cross long ago, on a hill far away.

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