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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cruz & Crosses

Sen. Ted Cruz set up a false bogeyman when he said the Supreme Court is “one justice away” from ordering that crosses on tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery be torn down.

Nobody is even asking the court to do such a thing. And in fact, the group that sought removal of a cross from formerly federal land in the Mojave Desert — losing the 5-4 decision to which Cruz referred — strongly supports crosses and other religious symbols on government-issued headstones at Arlington and other military cemeteries.

The Texas senator, who’s seeking the GOP nomination for president, made his claim at a religious rally in Iowa on Aug. 21. He referred to the Supreme Court’s decision allowing the Mojave Desert cross to stand:

Cruz, Aug. 21: Four justices were willing to say this monument to our veterans must be torn to the ground. Anyone who has visited Arlington Cemetery and seen row after row of tombstone with a cross or Star of David honoring our soldiers who gave the last, the ultimate sacrifice. We’re one justice away from the Supreme Court saying we must tear those down.

Sample Headstone
Sample VA Headstone

But it’s a long way from the Mojave to Arlington, where crosses or other religious symbols are carved into government-issued headstones only at the request of the deceased or their next of kin.

In the Mojave case, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that allowing the cross to stand on federal land was an endorsement of one religion over another, violating the First Amendment’s ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The ACLU continued to press even after the government donated the site to a private owner, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in return for other land elsewhere. The ACLU argued that the swap was simply an evasion.

But when it comes to Arlington’s crosses, the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion supports them and any other religious symbol requested by the deceased, the ACLU has argued. In a 2006 lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (which had denied a request for a Wiccan symbol), the ACLU said:

ACLU, 2006: Displaying a Cross, a Star of David or any other emblem of religious belief on a gravestone or marker is a long-held tradition in the United States and serves as a means of professing the faith of the deceased. Forbidding some veterans from displaying an emblem representing their religious beliefs on their headstones or markers greatly burdens the free exercise of religion of veterans and their families.
In that case, the ACLU prevailed when the VA agreed to include the Wiccan circle-and-pentangle symbol among the “emblems of belief” it will carve into headstones if requested.
Bogus claims about nonexistent threats to crosses in military cemeteries have been circulating among the gullible for more than a decade. The myth-busting site Snopes.com reported on a 2003 viral email falsely claiming that the ACLU was suing to have cross-shaped headstones removed from military cemeteries. The claim took on new life after the inauguration of President Obama in 2009, but there was no truth to it then either, as we reported.
Cruz is quite correct to note that the Supreme Court is closely divided on many issues, and the next president may make one or more appointments that could tip the balance in one direction or another. But he goes too far when he suggests that crosses at military cemeteries are under threat.
— Brooks Jackson