Honoring the fallen with a cross is not 'establishment of religion' – May SCOTUS set things right in 2019

Don Mackey died in a maelstrom of fire on a gut-busting hillside in southern Colorado on July 6, 1994. He was a smokejumper—one of the few who are first on scene, first to the fight. And on July 6, he was among the first to die as, leading his crew and yards from safety, Don turned back toward the rising flames to help a lagging crewmember. When the fire finally laid down and the blackened hillside was searched, his body was found a few feet from that crewmember’s body.

Today, on the rumpled ridges of Storm King Mountain, 14 stone crosses stand in tribute to each man and woman who died. Don’s dad was instrumental in recruiting volunteers, garnering donations, and organizing the effort to create and plant those crosses which speak today to say, “Here fell a noble soul; here is the place of sacrifice, remembrance, and honor.”

Yet there are those who will not tolerate such honors—who demand that if there is to be any remembrance, it must be as dictated by their feelings.

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Sadly, they have too often forced their will on others through the federal courts. They have claimed that the government “establishes” a religion when it allows these memorials, which causes them psychological injury. And that, they reason, empowers federal judges to order their removal.

Today we see that playing out in Bladensburg, Maryland, where the Peace Cross—memorializing, name-by-name, the 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County who died in World War I—has been attacked by the American Humanist Association, which advocates for “humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers.” That association sued, using that Establishment Clause claim of emotional injury to get into court, and managed to prevail in the federal appeals court.

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The Bladensburg and Storm King Mountain crosses are not unique: Similar memorials, wreathed in equal grief and honor, dot the mountain West. Notable among them are Mann Gulch, Idaho (1949, 13 lost); Rattlesnake Canyon, California (1953, 15 lost); and Yarnell Hill, Arizona (2013, 19 lost). It is impossible to quantify how important such memorials are to the family and colleagues of the fallen, to others who similarly serve, and to the community at large.

FILE - In this May 7, 2014 file photo, the World War I memorial cross is pictured in Bladensburg, Md. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether a nearly 100-year-old, cross-shaped war memorial located on a Maryland highway median violates the Constitution's required separation of church and state. The court announced Friday, Nov. 2, that it would hear the case. (Algerina Perna /The Baltimore Sun via AP, File)

FILE - In this May 7, 2014 file photo, the World War I memorial cross is pictured in Bladensburg, Md. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether a nearly 100-year-old, cross-shaped war memorial located on a Maryland highway median violates the Constitution's required separation of church and state. The court announced Friday, Nov. 2, that it would hear the case. (Algerina Perna /The Baltimore Sun via AP, File) (Algerina Perna /The Baltimore Sun via AP, File)

I know, because I was a wildland firefighter, too. I had met Don a couple weeks before his death, late at night on another fire. I was running a medical unit. Around 10 p.m. or so, this crew boss came by asking for some supplies for his crew before they shipped out to another fire in a few hours. We chatted a bit as I gathered this and that for him and threw in a couple of extra goodies. It stuck in my mind a bit only because he struck me as a good leader—a guy who was out cadging supplies for his guys rather than grabbing a precious 30 minutes of sleep.

That was Don, a guy I met and knew for all of 10 minutes.

About 10 days later, I was en route to another fire, driving through the New Mexico night, when the radio spattered out sparse reports of the tragedy at Storm King Mountain—or South Canyon to some. As things settled out and the story became known, we learned about the 14 men and women that had died that bitter day.

So we on the line mourned, as best we could. Our brothers and sisters had fallen, and whether personally known or not, when someone in your fire family dies, all of us die a little bit with them. The hurt, the horror, the tears, and the grief run rampant, even if you have to stuff them inside and dole out another bandage or dig another yard of fire line—because your fire hasn’t died, and you still have to kill it.

To the Supreme Court, I say it is time to bring some order to Establishment Clause jurisprudence. It is absurd to claim that a memorial cross is an intentional “establishment of religion” by the government. And it is even more absurd for the courts to act based upon a person’s emotional reaction. And the law should never lead to absurd results.


Six days later, still reeling with the grief and loss, it hit again: A helicopter at my home forest spun out and crashed as it approached a new fire. Five aboard; three died; one of those our receptionist’s nephew—a second generation wildland firefighter, following in his dad’s footsteps. Dad had a full career; son Sean’s career crumpled on a rocky hillside and ended at age 20. Before that bitter summer was over, the toll would grow to 34 firefighters killed.

There are hearts today that still bear the wounds of loss, but those hearts are healed in part by knowing that the fallen are not forgotten.

Fortunately, on Nov. 3, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in the Bladensburg cross case, so perhaps it will get its reprieve from the breaker’s hammer.

To the American Humanists who are seeking to uproot that cross, I commend you for the ardor of your belief—or lack thereof—and insist that the First Amendment protects your right to believe or not and to advocate all you want for your point of view.

But to the Supreme Court, I say it is time to bring some order to Establishment Clause jurisprudence. It is absurd to claim that a memorial cross is an intentional “establishment of religion” by the government. And it is even more absurd for the courts to act based upon a person’s emotional reaction. And the law should never lead to absurd results.

After all, if emotional injury counts in this equation, I’d respectfully submit that what I—and untold thousands of others—felt when we sat and wept by 14 granite crosses on a slowly greening, yet still-blackened and windswept Colorado hillside is a transcendent emotional injury.

Please, atheists and courts, let us honor our fallen as we will. No reasonable person would mistake the purpose of those crosses, and no legal principle should justify toppling them one by one.