The latest episode of controversy over the public display of a cross was argued in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals when the full court upheld an earlier ruling declaring the 40-foot-tall cross, known as the Peace Cross, as unconstitutional. Unless the Supreme Court intervenes, the memorial will have to come down.
The Peace Cross has stood in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for nearly 100 years as a tribute to the 49 WWI veterans of the county who died during the war. The monument bears their names on the base along with the words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage,” and “Devotion.” But in the growing tide of attacks on public symbols connected with Christianity, the American Humanist Association sued to have the cross removed, claiming the Latin cross is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
In its 8-6 decision, the court agreed with the atheists, saying the cross is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Hopefully, this is not the end of the matter — and our friends at First Liberty, who are representing the American Legion in this case, will be able to make a case for the Peace Cross at the Supreme Court.
This ongoing conflict over the cross shouldn’t surprise us in the least. After all, there’s a reason that the cross is controversial. The cross symbolizes the condemnation we are all under because of our sin. But at the same time, it offers the cure for sin.
Jesus spoke to both the purpose and the power of the cross in John 12:32, as He was eluding to His pending death on the cross: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself.”
Like the brass serpent that God instructed Moses in Numbers 21 to lift up in the wilderness, Christ is the cure for the condemnation our sin has brought upon us. The brass serpent, the divinely designed healing for those bitten by the snakes that were unleashed on the people because of their sin against God, was lifted up so that no matter where one of the children of Israel may have been in the camp, they could look up in faith and be healed. This elevation of the healing standard was a visual display of God’s mercy and grace.
In like manner, Christ was lifted up on the cross — and for those who will by faith look up, they will, by God’s grace, find not the temporal deliverance from the physical death of a snake bite but the deliverance from the consequence of sin: eternal damnation.
The cross is controversial because it is the path to peace. It was through the cross, Paul said, that Jesus “reconcile[d] all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”
While the humanists and atheists fail in the majority of their challenges to the public display of religious symbols like the cross, don’t expect the conflict to subside. In fact, expect it to intensify as a spiritually darkening world sees the message of the cross as foolishness. Meanwhile, we must cheerfully and optimistically contend for the cross, lifting its message high, for it is in the cross that we see the power of God.
This is a publication of the Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins is president of FRC.