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How Many ACLU Lawyers Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

October 26, 2005

The “tiny cross” people at the American Civil Liberties Union are at it again. These are the folks with extra-keen eyes and powerful magnifying glasses who examine the official seals of towns and counties, looking for miniature crosses that ACLU lawyers like to trumpet as grave threats to separation of church and state.

This time around, the folks with the magnifying glasses are leaning on the village of Tijeras, N.M., whose seal contains a conquistador’s helmet and sword, a scroll, a desert plant, a fairly large religious symbol (the Native American zia) and a quite small Christian cross. “Tiny cross” inspectors are not permitted to fret about large non-Christian religious symbols, only undersized Christian ones, so the ACLU filed suit to get the cross removed.

The cross is obviously not an endorsement of religion, any more than the conquistador helmet and sword are endorsements of Spanish warfare. The courts have ruled, not always consistently, that crosses, as historical references in such seals and logos, are permissible. But the ACLU, these days, is strongly committed to seeing church-state crises everywhere, and thus pushes things way too far.

Last year the ACLU demanded that Los Angeles County eliminate from its seal a microscopic cross representing the missions that settled the state of California. Under threat of expensive litigation, the county complied. The cross was about one-sixth the size of a not-very-big image of a cow tucked away on the lower right segment of the seal, and maybe a hundredth of the size of a pagan god (Pomona, goddess of fruit) who dominated the seal. Pomona survived the religious purge. She is not the sort of god that the ACLU worries about, whereas the flyspeck-sized cross was a threat to unravel separation of church and state, as we know it. What will happen if the ACLU learns that Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Sacramento, San Francisco, St. Louis and Corpus Christi actually have religious names? We shudder to think.

The campaign to remove all traces of religion from public institutions, and in fact from the entire public square, is now far advanced. Part of that extremist campaign is to squelch private expression in and around public schools. Students have been punished for reading the Bible outside of class, for assembling after school to talk about religion, for thanking God or Jesus in a valedictory speech, and for bowing their heads (and therefore presumed to be praying privately) before lunch.

Another fairly common school crisis comes when a class is asked to write an essay or draw a picture of someone they regard as a hero. Mao Tse-tung or Vlad the Impaler will bring no rebuke, but if the hero is Jesus or Moses, watch out.

Last week the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York accepted the case of Antonio Peck, who, as a kindergartner in 1999, had his drawing censored from a class wall display because of church-state concerns. Along with the rest of his class, Antonio was told to draw a picture to illustrate his understanding of the environment. He drew a man with upraised arms, wearing a robe. When asked, the boy said the man was Jesus, who was “the only way to save the world.” The trial will decide whether the school was guilty of viewpoint censorship.

In Tennessee, the Knox County board of education is being sued for refusing to allow a 10-year-old to read his Bible during recess. The school argued that recess is not free time and that the school can forbid the reading of religious material during that period. The Phoenix-based Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which defends religious liberties cases, supported the student.

After ADF intervened, a school in Torrance, Calif., backed down from its decision not to allow a student on a dance team to perform to religious music. ADF also defended students who had been forbidden by their schools to participate in the national Sept. 21 “See You at the Pole” prayer and religious event on school grounds. ADF argued that religious expression cannot be treated differently from any other constitutionally protected expression.

As if to prove that church-state objections can be found on the right as well as on the left, the band director at C.D. Hylton High School in Virginia pulled the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band after a conservative objected. He wondered why the school should be allowed to sing about the devil when they are not allowed to sing about God.

Next week: The ACLU sues to ban deviled eggs from the school cafeteria.

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