ADAMS: Do religions intertwine?

Given the ongoing socially and economically significant debates over health care reform and the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, it’s no surprise that President Obama and Congress are currently attracting virtually all of the news media’s attention.

Indeed, the Constitution’s framers decided to establish the legislative and executive branches early on in the document, and the media have followed suit in their coverage of politics. Although this has always been the case, the proliferation of cable news networks now incessantly brings a diverse cast of executive or legislative character into our homes. Sure, the prize of “most-covered branch” swings back and forth from year to year and day to day, but one of these two is always crowned the champion.

Thus, in a situation akin to that of the World Cup — in which teams from European or South American countries always win — it may seem like no other important political actors even exist. But believe it or not, they do.

These are the members of the Supreme Court — that least visible and least sexy third branch of government. No, they don’t have a “bully pulpit” like the president, they don’t promise jobs and attend state fairs, and we don’t even have a say in who they are, but regardless of their ugly stepsister/third wheel status in the media, these nine robed Americans and their predecessors are important.

Need proof? They claimed the right to declare an action of the legislative of executive branch, for example, the creation of a new bill or a war, unconstitutional in the Marbury v. Madison decision of 1803. They also ended school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, kept abortions legal in Roe v. Wade, 1973, and decided whether a recount would occur in the 2000 presidential election of Bush v. Gore.

Given such pivotal importance, this branch and its members surely merit some air time. Throw in the oft-forgotten fact that this branch of government and its members provide all the personality, drama and conflict on which the news media thrive, and there really is no excuse to ignore it.

Take, for example, the case heard last Wednesday by the Court: Salazar v. Buono.

Involving a six-and-a-half foot tall cross built by veterans and bolted to a rock in a secluded area of the Mojave National Preserve in 1934 to honor those killed in World War I, the constitutional question is clearly one of the separation of church and state. A non-issue for over 65 years, the last decade has seen the Christian holy symbol, the cross, spur numerous congressional and judicial actions.

Now, in front of the highest court in the land, the question is whether a cross erected on publicly-owned land violates Amendment I of the Constitution, which calls on Congress to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” While this may not seem to fit, establishment of religion is indeed the issue, as the Court must decide whether Congress was acting constitutionally in designating the site a national memorial and turning its land over to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Essentially, did Congress grant favor to the VFW and, more importantly, Christianity?

The American Civil Liberties Union, supported by such liberal groups as the American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sure think so. On the opposite end, veterans, supported by conservative groups such as the Eagle Forum, the Thomas More Law Center, and the Christian Legal Society, sure don’t.

Their positions, and the heated nature of the church-state debate, was most visibly provided by the dramatic exchange between Justice Antonin Scalia, a devout Catholic, and Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU’s lawyer.

It began with Scalia’s suggestion that perhaps the cross might indeed serve to symbolize the appreciation for all war dead, regardless of their personal religion. “The cross doesn’t honor the non-Christians who fought in the war?”

Scalia condescendingly asked Eliasberg.

Eliasberg confirmed that that was the contention.

“Where does it say that?” Scalia demanded.

“It doesn’t say that,” Eliasberg replied, “but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins.”

“The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead,” Scalia charged. “What would you have them erect? Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and, you know, a Muslim half-moon and star?”

Not intimidated, Eliasberg shot back that “the cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”

While the audience laughed at this, Scalia was far from amused. “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that cross honors are the Christian dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.”

Aside from clearly demonstrating the overarching question of the case in clear and comprehensible terms, this “conversation” demonstrates much more: It shows that the Supreme Court can offer all the drama that the legislative and executive branches do, and that it can offer it while dealing with issues that have national implications. It shows that even the judicial branch has personalities, and they are pretty darn interesting. Lastly, it shows the Court could likely attract the attention of — and subsequently inform — millions of Americans.

– Steve Adams is a graduate student in journalism and mass communication from Annapolis, Maryland.