the Cross: American and French Perspectives
by Auxiliary Bishop J. Thomas Curry, Santa
Barbara Pastoral Region Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los
with permission from The Tidings Online (www.the-tidings.com),
Friday, September 24, 2004
threat of litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union,
Los Angeles County supervisors recently removed a cross
from the County Seal. Does that portend a similar challenge
to the city's name, as well? "Nuestra Seņora de Los Angeles"
certainly presents a far higher religious profile than a
barely noticed cross.
that regard, and if the reader will bear with it, a historical
detour can provide context to the issue of religious symbols
in public life.
year 1789 marked the beginning of the French Revolution
and the conclusion with the passage of the Bill of
Rightsof the American one. Each of those events greatly
altered church-state relations, but in utterly different
ways. Sad to say, favoring the French rather than the American
approach has become the source of confusion in church-state
The First Amendment is a
guarantee that government will mind its own limited, secular,
non-religious business, so that the people can enjoy their
natural right to religious liberty.
revolutionaries made the state supreme and gave it power
to replace religion in public life with a new ideology,
supposedly based on reason. They turned Notre Dame Cathedral
into a Temple of Reason, renamed all the months of the year,
and reorganized weeks into ten-day intervals. Many such
innovations failed, but much of the attitude responsible
for them remained. For example, only recently, France refused
to allow Muslim girls to wear headscarves at school because
all public life is required to be secular.
took a completely different approach. Whereas the French
sought to abolish the power of the Church, Americans determined
to limit the power of the state. They created a secular
but limited governmentone with no power over religion.
The free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment
is freedom from government authority or control. The Ninth
and Tenth Amendments specify that government received only
those powers enumerated in the Constitution. The people
retained all others.
Framers of the American Constitution certainly created a
secular government, but that government was not empowered
to impose a secular ideology. Earlier this year, Diane Johnson
wrote in the Los Angeles Times that in America "courts
have ruled that worship is private, and public spaces should
remain secular." Not so. That is the French, not the American,
system. The Mall in Washington, D.C. can be used for religious
services, as well as for secular political rallies.
issue at stake is what the government does, not what citizens
do, even in public places. In other words, the First Amendment
is a restraint on government, not on individuals' exercise
of the confusion that permeates church-state discussion
in our time results from a commonly held belief that the
"free exercise of religion" specified in the First Amendment
is a government-guaranteed right, but it is no such thing.
Rather, it is a guarantee that government will mind its
own limited, secular, non-religious business, so that the
people can enjoy their natural right to religious liberty.
of the First Amendment is also complicated by the common
practice of rephrasing it into a mandate for "the separation
of Church and State." This tends to lead people to adopt
the French attitude toward Church and State, in that it
implies that government is empowered to arrange the proper
spheres of both. Such an understanding utterly violates
the intent of the Amendment.
discussion in courts and by commentators is dominated by
the ridiculous theory that the First Amendment requires
government to be neutral between religions, and between
religion and non-religion. Again, this implies a power the
government does not have.
be neutral, one has to have the ability to evaluate all
sides; but government has no authority to evaluate religion.
And how could judges even be aware of all the religions
of the nation, let alone be competent to decide what would
be neutral in the case of each? Government is powerless
in religion, and that is completely different from being
attributing power over religion to government accounts for
ongoing church-state commotion. Although the ACLU challenged
the symbolic relationship between government and religion
in the case of the L.A. County Seal cross, it supports more
drastic government intervention in matters of religion.
example, the California Legislature recently targeted certain
Catholic organizations, particularly Catholic Charities,
to force them to provide birth control and some abortion
coverage as part of their employees' health insurance. The
purpose of that legislation, as one of its sponsors proclaimed,
was to "close the Catholic gap."
a pretended show of liberality, the Legislature allowed
for exceptions. However, to qualify for such, an applying
organization had to meet certain conditions: Its purpose
had to be the inculcation of religious values, and the majority
of both its employees and beneficiaries had to share its
religion. In other words, the secular State of California
set itself up as the judge of who is a Catholic and what
the inculcation of religious values entails.
law endowed government with enormous power over religion,
and yet the ACLU lauded and supported it. This is to follow
the French example and make the state the ultimate judge
of the Church. In such a scenario, government can define
the realm of the Church, confine it behind a wall of the
government's making, and banish religious practice to the
America, government is mandated to stay within the bounds
of its own specified secular role. As the Supreme Court
has stated, it may not invade the realm of "intellect and
spirit." For example, it may not sponsor prayers in public
schools, but individuals or groups may engage in religious
activity on public school property, just as other groups
or clubs do. The government may not define what religious
freedom is or what it is not, or what constitute religious
values. Those are rights reserved to the people.
gave government power to separate church and state. America
excluded power over religion from government altogether,
and left people free. Until judges and other commentators
return to the American model of religious freedom, the present
disarray in church-state relations will continue.
denies power to government in religious matters. What is
troubling about current church-state discussion, however,
is the willingness of so many to adopt the French system,
i.e., to confer power upon government so as to impose a
desired social agenda on religion. In supporting the power
of the State of California to decide the meaning of the
"inculcation of religious values," and to determine who
is a Catholic, the ACLU espouses a violation of the First
Amendment far greater than many other items it challenges
where does that leave us as regards such issues as the removal
of the cross from the County seal, or the re-naming of cities
such as Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and others with obvious
cross certainly raises a church-state issue. For instance,
people forming a new city today could not put a cross on
that city's seal. Nor could they name it Los Angeles or
the other hand, we are not obliged to adopt the spirit of
the French Revolutionaries and tear up symbols from the
nation's past that oppress no one by getting rid of every
indication of our religious history.
Bishop Thomas J. Curry is the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region
Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His books include
"The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the
Passage of the First Amendment" and "Farewell to Christendom:
The Future of Church and State in America" (both Oxford
University Press). Ed. Note: The Board of Supervisors, on
Sept. 14, voted to remove a small cross from the official
county seal designed 50 years ago by former Supervisor Kenneth
Hahn. In the 3-2 vote, Supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich
voted "no." The new seal removes the small Latin cross,
the goddess Pomona and the graphic of the oil derricks.
In their places, a likeness of the San Gabriel Mission without
a cross and a Native American woman will be added.