06/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Cross by Any Other Name


What do you see?

Do you have much doubt about it?

It could be the letter "t."

But suppose it is eight feet tall and erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars on federal land to honor American soldiers who died in World War I.

What is it?

I checked a dozen dictionaries, encyclopedias, and similar sources. Here is what I learned. It is "a symbol of Christianity." It is "the best-known religious symbol of Christianity." It is "the principal symbol of the Christian religion." It is "an emblem of Christianity." It is "the most familiar and widely recognized symbol of Christianity." It is "the symbol of Christian faith." It is "the cross of Christ's crucifixion."

There doesn't seem to be much doubt about it.

Except to some of the justices on the Supreme Court of the United States. According to Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, in this week's decision in Salazar v. Buono, the "cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. [...] It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten."

So, it's not "a symbol of Christianity"? It's not "the principal symbol of the Christian religion"? It's not "the symbol of Christian faith"? It's not "the cross of Christ's crucifixion"? It's a neutral symbol that just happens to be "used to honor [...] those whose heroic acts [...] help secure an honored place in history for this Nation."

And the American flag doesn't symbolize America? And the swastika doesn't symbolize Nazism? And a burning cross doesn't symbolize the KKK? And the Golden Arches don't symbolize McDonald's?

In its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation. In so doing, the Court considered the symbolic meaning of the legally-mandated separation of blacks and whites into "colored only" and "white only" railroad cars: "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."

The Court is wrong in Salazar for the same reason it was wrong in Plessy: In both cases, the justices allowed meaning to be determined by the perceptions of the dominant forces in society, who like to imagine that their understanding of the world is neutral, natural, and objective. It is not.

The inherent message of segregation was not one of racial neutrality, but of racial subordination and inferiority. The inherent message of the cross is not a neutral testament to fallen heroes, but a potent affirmation by government of the Christian religion. This our Constitution does not allow.