And the Evansville riverfront crosses case may move it again.
Because it is squarely in that ill-defined territory between freedom of speech and state sponsorship of religion, don’t be surprised if the Evansville riverfront crosses case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Even if you think you know how the court might rule, it wouldn’t be wise to put any money on it. The justices have been all over the map when it comes to what is or is not an impermissible breach of the wall between church and state.
Put the blame on Thomas Jefferson. The phrase “wall of separation between church and state” is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. But Jefferson used it in an 1802 letter, and because he is so closely identified with the Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular, the Supreme Court has been referring to it in its decisions ever since.
Because of the 14th Amendment’s “due process” and “equal protection” clauses, shortly after the Civil War it was held that the Bill of Rights apply to the states as well as the federal government, and it’s been chaos ever since. Yes, public funds can be used to bus students to religious schools. No, school officials can’t compose a prayer to be recited. Yes, a private group can put up a Ten Commandments monument on public property. Saying prayers at town meetings is – well, stay tuned for that one.
In the Evansville case, the city did more than permit a single cross to be displayed on riverfront property it owns. It gave the West Side Christian Church permission to erect 31 6-foot-tall crosses, which were to be decorated by students from the church’s vacation Bible school. Does that amount to the city “endorsing” Christianity? Two residents and the American Civil Liberties of Indiana thought so, and federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued an injunction against the crosses. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing the church’s appeal of her decision.
The people who bring all these suits cannot seriously believe they are being threatened with “establishment of religion” of the sort so feared by the nation’s founders. They seem mostly annoyed or offended that any religion at all is allowed in the public square. It’s fair to wonder why they are so consumed with waging such pointless crusades for such a trivial cause.
But the Supreme Court long ago decided not to make the wall of separation an absolute, inviting endless debate over how much we may mix church and state. Those debates can at least remind us of how free we are in this country to draw and move the line. In many places (the oppressive Mideast, say), the line is forever fixed, and woe to anyone who crosses it.