Religious Symbols in the Cross Hairs

Author: Father John Flynn


Religious Symbols in the Cross Hairs

Hostility to Signs of Christianity Mounts

By Father John Flynn


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 Nichol.

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.

Excluding religion

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 prelates.

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 Jan. 13.

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 Years 2001-2006."

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 essential.

"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 denomination."

"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.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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