Removing the Cross: American and French Perspectives

by Auxiliary Bishop J. Thomas Curry, Santa Barbara Pastoral Region Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Reprinted with permission from The Tidings Online (, Friday, September 24, 2004

Under threat of litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union, Los Angeles County supervisors recently removed a cross from the County Seal. Does that portend a similar challenge to the city’s name, as well? “Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles” certainly presents a far higher religious profile than a barely noticed cross.

In that regard, and if the reader will bear with it, a historical detour can provide context to the issue of religious symbols in public life.

The year 1789 marked the beginning of the French Revolution and the conclusion— with the passage of the Bill of Rights—of the American one. Each of those events greatly altered church-state relations, but in utterly different ways. Sad to say, favoring the French rather than the American approach has become the source of confusion in church-state discussion.

The First Amendment is a guarantee that government will mind its own limited, secular, non-religious business, so that the people can enjoy their natural right to religious liberty.

French revolutionaries made the state supreme and gave it power to replace religion in public life with a new ideology, supposedly based on reason. They turned Notre Dame Cathedral into a Temple of Reason, renamed all the months of the year, and reorganized weeks into ten-day intervals. Many such innovations failed, but much of the attitude responsible for them remained. For example, only recently, France refused to allow Muslim girls to wear headscarves at school because all public life is required to be secular.

Americans took a completely different approach. Whereas the French sought to abolish the power of the Church, Americans determined to limit the power of the state. They created a secular but limited government—one with no power over religion. The free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment is freedom from government authority or control. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments specify that government received only those powers enumerated in the Constitution. The people retained all others.

The Framers of the American Constitution certainly created a secular government, but that government was not empowered to impose a secular ideology. Earlier this year, Diane Johnson wrote in the Los Angeles Times that in America “courts have ruled that worship is private, and public spaces should remain secular.” Not so. That is the French, not the American, system. The Mall in Washington, D.C. can be used for religious services, as well as for secular political rallies.


The issue at stake is what the government does, not what citizens do, even in public places. In other words, the First Amendment is a restraint on government, not on individuals’ exercise of religion.

Much of the confusion that permeates church-state discussion in our time results from a commonly held belief that the “free exercise of religion” specified in the First Amendment is a government-guaranteed right, but it is no such thing. Rather, it is a guarantee that government will mind its own limited, secular, non-religious business, so that the people can enjoy their natural right to religious liberty.

Discussion of the First Amendment is also complicated by the common practice of rephrasing it into a mandate for “the separation of Church and State.” This tends to lead people to adopt the French attitude toward Church and State, in that it implies that government is empowered to arrange the proper spheres of both. Such an understanding utterly violates the intent of the Amendment.

Currently, discussion in courts and by commentators is dominated by the ridiculous theory that the First Amendment requires government to be neutral between religions, and between religion and non-religion. Again, this implies a power the government does not have.

To be neutral, one has to have the ability to evaluate all sides; but government has no authority to evaluate religion. And how could judges even be aware of all the religions of the nation, let alone be competent to decide what would be neutral in the case of each? Government is powerless in religion, and that is completely different from being neutral.

Nevertheless, attributing power over religion to government accounts for ongoing church-state commotion. Although the ACLU challenged the symbolic relationship between government and religion in the case of the L.A. County Seal cross, it supports more drastic government intervention in matters of religion.

For example, the California Legislature recently targeted certain Catholic organizations, particularly Catholic Charities, to force them to provide birth control and some abortion coverage as part of their employees’ health insurance. The purpose of that legislation, as one of its sponsors proclaimed, was to “close the Catholic gap.”

In a pretended show of liberality, the Legislature allowed for exceptions. However, to qualify for such, an applying organization had to meet certain conditions: Its purpose had to be the inculcation of religious values, and the majority of both its employees and beneficiaries had to share its religion. In other words, the secular State of California set itself up as the judge of who is a Catholic and what the inculcation of religious values entails.

The law endowed government with enormous power over religion, and yet the ACLU lauded and supported it. This is to follow the French example and make the state the ultimate judge of the Church. In such a scenario, government can define the realm of the Church, confine it behind a wall of the government’s making, and banish religious practice to the “private” sphere.

In America, government is mandated to stay within the bounds of its own specified secular role. As the Supreme Court has stated, it may not invade the realm of “intellect and spirit.” For example, it may not sponsor prayers in public schools, but individuals or groups may engage in religious activity on public school property, just as other groups or clubs do. The government may not define what religious freedom is or what it is not, or what constitute religious values. Those are rights reserved to the people.

France gave government power to separate church and state. America excluded power over religion from government altogether, and left people free. Until judges and other commentators return to the American model of religious freedom, the present disarray in church-state relations will continue.

America denies power to government in religious matters. What is troubling about current church-state discussion, however, is the willingness of so many to adopt the French system, i.e., to confer power upon government so as to impose a desired social agenda on religion. In supporting the power of the State of California to decide the meaning of the “inculcation of religious values,” and to determine who is a Catholic, the ACLU espouses a violation of the First Amendment far greater than many other items it challenges as unconstitutional.

So where does that leave us as regards such issues as the removal of the cross from the County seal, or the re-naming of cities such as Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and others with obvious religious connotations?

The cross certainly raises a church-state issue. For instance, people forming a new city today could not put a cross on that city’s seal. Nor could they name it Los Angeles or Corpus Christi.

On the other hand, we are not obliged to adopt the spirit of the French Revolutionaries and tear up symbols from the nation’s past that oppress no one by getting rid of every indication of our religious history.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry is the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His books include “The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment” and “Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America” (both Oxford University Press). Ed. Note: The Board of Supervisors, on Sept. 14, voted to remove a small cross from the official county seal designed 50 years ago by former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. In the 3-2 vote, Supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich voted “no.” The new seal removes the small Latin cross, the goddess Pomona and the graphic of the oil derricks. In their places, a likeness of the San Gabriel Mission without a cross and a Native American woman will be added.