Hostility to Signs of Christianity Mounts
By Father John Flynn
ROME, 12 MARCH 2007 (ZENIT)
The presence of Christian symbols in
public life is increasingly under challenge. Last October, a cross on
the altar of a chapel at the College of William and Mary, in
Williamsburg, Virginia, was removed on orders of college president Gene
The decision sparked off a fierce debate, culminating in the
announcement last week that the cross will return, reported the
Washington Times on March 7. The cross, nevertheless, will not return to
the altar, but will be placed on display in a glass case.
The decision came after dismayed college alumni had threatened to
withhold millions of dollars in donations.
In a report on the controversy Dec. 26, the Washington Post newspaper
noted that the college president wanted to remove the cross so as not to
exclude students of non-Christian faith. The article did add, however,
that prior to his decision anyone who used the chapel could ask for the
cross to be removed for weddings or other services.
The College of William and Mary is the second-oldest in the United
States, and its Wren Chapel was built in 1732. It became a
state-supported institution in 1906. The cross, reported the Washington
Post, was donated by Bruton Parish Episcopal Church and has been on
display since the 1930s.
The symbol of the cross also came under attack in Canada late last year.
The board of governors of Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia,
decided to remove the two crosses from its coat of arms, reported the
National Post newspaper Dec. 27.
Warren Gill, vice president of university relations, explained that the
crosses, combined with the fact the university is named after a person
explorer Simon Fraser
has led "foreign cultures" to mistakenly conclude the university is "a
private religious university, as opposed to a provincial institution,"
the National Post reported.
Meanwhile, in Spain, there has been conflict over the display of
crucifixes in the classrooms of public schools. A primary school in the
city of Valladolid decided to remove the crucifixes from classrooms, the
newspaper ABC reported Nov. 27.
Commenting on the issue, Seville's archbishop, Cardinal Carlos Amigo,
declared that it is much more important to teach a young male Christian
student to respect a girl who wears the Muslim veil, and that she
respect the boy who wears a crucifix, than to prohibit both of them from
wearing their symbols.
On Jan. 13 the ABC newspaper reported that another public school in
Palencia put back the crucifixes after parents had protested the
decision to take them down.
The article also reported that the school disputes come at a time when
the Spanish episcopal conference has criticized the government for its
zeal in excluding religious symbols from public events.
In fact, this theme was the subject of a pastoral letter from the
bishops, published Nov. 23. The text notes that there is an "alarming
development" of secularism in Spanish society. This isn't a question of
the need to preserve the just independence of the temporal order and its
institutions, but rather an attempt to exclude God completely.
Any reference to God, the bishops observed in the statement, is
increasingly considered as a sign of intellectual immaturity and a lack
of human freedom. This extension of atheism in modern culture, the
document continued, marks a fundamental change in one's life, given that
God is a vital part of the roots and culture of many societies.
The desire to exclude God in such a radical way, the bishops commented,
is due to the desire to be absolute masters of one's own destiny, and to
order society according to one's own will without reference to any
higher authority. From this stems the hostility to religion and the
idolization of worldly goods as the supreme good in life, added the
In England, the debate over Christian symbols continues. Last year an
employee of British Airways was asked to not wear a small cross necklace
to work. Earlier this year, the Robert Napier School in Gillingham,
Kent, asked one of its Catholic students, Samantha Devine, to remove a
cross necklace that she was wearing, the Daily Mail newspaper reported
Her family was quick to protest, noting that the school allows Muslim
pupils to wear head scarves and Sikh students to come to lessons with
turbans and bangles, the article pointed out.
Work it out
Conflicts over religion and work are not uncommon in the United States.
In 2003 Connie Rehm of Savannah, Missouri, lost her job at the town's
public library for refusing to work on Sundays.
The library had started to open Sundays, but Rehm, a Lutheran, said her
faith prohibited her from working on those days.
She was reinstated last autumn after taking her case to the federal
courts, the Associated Press reported Nov. 16.
The importance of the issue of religious discrimination is reflected in
the decision of the U.S. Department of Justice to make a program to help
protect people on this issue. The First Freedom Project was launched
Feb. 20 by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Religious liberty is often referred to as the "First Freedom" because of
its first place in the Bill of Rights, noted a press release on the
project's Web site.
Along with the project launch, the Justice Department published its
"Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom: Fiscal
Role in society
Addressing the issue of human rights and religion, the Holy See's
permanent observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore,
argued for the need to respect religious liberty. In his Oct. 27 address
to a General Assembly committee, the Vatican representative pointed out
that the freedom to believe, worship and witness to one's faith is
"The Holy See continues to be concerned by a number of situations where
the existence of enacted or proposed legislative and administrative
measures for placing limits on the practice, observance or propagation
of religion are a reality," said Archbishop Migliore.
The rights of religion in public life were also defended recently by
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. "The legitimate role of the Churches
and faith communities in the public life," he said, speaking Feb. 26 at
the inauguration of what was called the "Structured Dialogue with
Churches, Faith Communities and Non-Confessional Bodies."
Dialogue with churches and religious groups, he continued, is important
in "understanding the beliefs and values which have shaped our
institutions, customs and values and which provide the key to the
overall sense of identity of so many of our people."
"Turning our back as a country on our living and vibrant life of
religious faith would be a loss and would be a mistake," the Irish
leader argued. "The moral attitudes inculcated in a culture of faith are
at the core of the beliefs of very many more people who would not
particularly consider themselves aligned with any particular creed or
"If modern Ireland were to dislocate from its hinterland of religious
belief, our culture and our society would be cut adrift from its deepest
roots and from one of its most vital sources of nourishment for its
growth and direction into the future," Ahern maintained.
The prime minister described as "illiberal" the voices that belong to an
aggressive secularism that ignores the importance of the religious
dimension and wishes to strictly confine religion to the private sphere.
Governments, he continued, "which refuse or fail to engage with
religious communities and religious identities, risk failing in their
fundamental duties to their citizens." This comment comes as a welcome
change from the hostility to religion that is increasingly prevalent.