By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
Following pressure from two secular advocacy groups, a township in western Michigan is holding a public hearing over whether to remove a large cross on the shores of Lake Michigan honoring local explorer and Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette – an effort that one religious liberty group has criticized as another example of “militant atheism” in the United States.
In response to the Michigan Association of Civil Rights and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation’s efforts to remove the cross, the Pere Marquette Township Board will hold a township meeting Jan. 23 to discuss the matter further.
While the two groups claim that the memorial is in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, an attorney from the religious liberty law firm Becket maintained that the cross is not a sign of coercion or proselytization, but recognition of the area’s history.
“The reality is that the Establishment Clause does not require us to censor every reference to religion in our history and culture,” said Eric Baxter, counsel at Becket.
“The arguments made by the Freedom From Religion Foundation are ridiculous and they have a spectacular record of losing these kind of cases,” Baxter said. “They basically spend all of their time going around the country looking for any sign of religion in the public square and threaten to sue over it.”
While the Marquette cross is in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, diocesan officials have not made any public statement on the case, nor has the local parish, St. Simon’s Catholic Church.
Yet in an interview with the Ludington Daily News, the Township Supervisor Paul Keson said there is evident public support for the memorial.
“We have received numerous phone calls, most of them commenting (that) they want that memorial, they want it the way it is and where it is,” said Keson. “They don’t want to see it torn down.”
The cross was erected in 1955 on the spot where Marquette is believed to have died. Father James Marquette, who hailed from France, is one of the first European explorers to have explored the area of the northern Mississippi river and his name is attached to many area institutions and monuments.
“Father Marquette was an American explorer. He was also a missionary,” said Baxter. “The memorial that stands on the shores of Lake Michigan is a perfectly appropriate way to remember him and to mark the place where he died. It’s part of our history, it’s part of our culture, and there’s nothing in the Establishment Clause that prevents it.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) was founded in 1978 as a watchdog organization aimed to promote free thought and skepticism and has a history of pursuing similar cases for the purposes of litigation.
Yet according to Becket, its cases are largely based on a misguided interpretation of the First Amendment.
“The Establishment Clause was designed to prevent people from being coerced to exercise a religion that they don’t share or believe in,” said Baxter. “Groups like FFRF spend a lot of time pushing the idea that any time there is any sign of religion in the public square, someone may feel coerced or pressured or feel like they’re an outsider if they don’t accept whatever religion the monument seems to be conveying. And that’s ridiculous.”
“No one goes to the Lincoln Memorial and sees the phrase ‘Under God’ from the Gettysburg Address and thinks they somehow have to believe in God. No one looks at coins and sees ‘In God We Trust’ and thinks that they are being pressured to believe in God if they don’t. Or for that matter, no one walks into Statuary Hall in Congress where there’s a statue of Marquette there and thinks that Wisconsin and the U.S. Congress are forcing me to believe in Catholicism. Everyone looks at it and realizes he was a historical figure who played a role in the founding and the development of our nation and looks at it from that perspective.”
Baxter believes that groups that pursue such cases are representative of a small minority view that is well funded but lacks legal standing.
“Groups like FFRF and apparently the Michigan Association for Civil Rights have found someone to fund their militant atheism, so they spend more money and time writing these letters and threatening townships and counties and states,” he said.
Baxter said that should the clash continue, the legal grounds for keeping the cross is clear.
“The Supreme Court has taken a more rigorous stance saying that we have to look at the Establishment Clause through the lens of history,” he said. “I think we’ll see more and more courts rejecting FFRF philosophy that we have to censor our history to avoid any mention of religion.”