Saturday, August 14, 2010

When do religious displays cross line?

I comprehend the fact that some people receive such a satisfying sensation from their religious beliefs that they feel the need to engage in public expressions of their faith. It is when those people persist in trying to drive those beliefs down the throats of everybody around them that I have a problem.

Which is why a pair of stories cropping up this week in Southern Illinois managed to capture my attention.

FOR IT SEEMS that the datelines “MARION, Ill. –“ and “ALTO PASS, Ill. –“ will be turning up in the news in coming months.

The former is what passes for one of Southern Illinois’ major cities (population is only just over 17,000, but it is the location of the correctional center where some of the nation’s most violent federal inmates are kept), whille the latter is significant because of the two interstate highways that intersect near the town.

That intersection is the location of a 111-foot tall Christian cross that can be seen for miles around and is even used as a landmark by aviation students in the area to help them keep their bearings. As one who has driven on Interstate 70 and then turned onto Interstate 57 to get to Southern Illinois (including Marion), I am aware that the cross is not ignorable.

The cross has been in place for decades, and has become something of a local landmark. It even attracts a certain type of tourist (the kind of person who likes to go to obscure places in search of bizarre objects). But because of its age, it is deteriorating physically, which is why local groups are trying to raise money to help pay for renovations to keep it structurally sound.

IT SEEMS THAT the Friends of the Cross group has come up with about $400,000 (about half the total they think they need), and somehow managed to get $20,000 of that in the form of a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

That fact has the Chicago-area’s most outspoken atheist activist, Rob Sherman, all upset. The man who once showed up at 3 a.m. at the old City News Bureau of Chicago offices to play me a tape recording of then-President Ronald Reagan making (to him) a stupid wisecrack in favor of religion in government went ahead this week and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for central Illinois (based in Springfield).

He wants the group to be forced to give the state back its money – claiming this is a clear-cut case of a violation of the separation of “church and state.” Although I know that state agency has provided money for many off-beat projects with dubious local economic value. I wonder how many of the minor league baseball stadiums built in recent years with partial state funds from that agency are truly providing the benefits that were boasted about by their local proponents?

What makes a giant cross any more absurd? It is so large and gaudy that it can’t be taken too seriously as a “holy site.”

I’M NOT SURE how the federal court is going to rule, although I’m pretty sure if he had filed his lawsuit with the Southern Illinois district court in Benton, Ill., Sherman would have been laughed out of town.

Because I’m sure a lot of people are going to view this as a case of a local tourist attraction (about the only one that Alto Pass, Ill., has), and not a place that specifically peddles religion.

Some groups have used the sight for large-scale religious rallies. But there are just as many people who view the cross as an eccentricity along the lines of the world’s largest ball of twine (a distinction claimed by both Darwin, Minn., and Cawker City, Kan.).

Personally, I remember it as something I saw just before stopping in nearby Mount Vernon to reload by car with gasoline.

WHICH MEANS I wonder if Sherman is merely continuing his record of being a non-religious Don Quixote. Put a windmill blade on this cross, and the analogy would be perfect.

Which means I don’t view this activity as being offensive, which is something I can’t say about Marion, Ill., where some local officials seem determined to erect a monument on the grounds of the town square depicting the Ten Commandments – thereby giving them a sense of recognition by local officials.

A local resident wants Marion officials to put the religious monument there, and is willing to arrange for someone to purchase the plot of land that would be needed for the monument. That move would make the portion of the town square private property, which would allow its new owner to erect whatever he wants there.

The Southern Illinois newspaper reported this week that attorneys for the city are urging them to reject the idea, because of all the legal grief it will create. The American Civil Liberties Union already has threatened its own lawsuit if the monument is approved.

YET MARION MAYOR Bob Butler seems to want to figure out a way to place the monument on the grounds. “I am confident that one way or another, the Ten Commandments will be put in place,” Butler told the Southern Illinoisan.

Excuse me for thinking that this is just an attempt by someone who wants to try to impose his religious beliefs on everyone around him, and is trying to get a council worked up over the issue to where they will think it is some noble cause to erect such a monument.

Not that I really care much about the Ten Commandments – which largely are noble goals we all ought to try to live our lives by, regardless of our religious faiths.

It’s just that I can’t help but wonder why the people who are most trying to push for this monument are so eager. It makes me suspect that maybe their own lives aren’t in perfect accord with those commandments, and they’d rather have the masses look at everybody else’s conduct other than their own.


No comments: