Reviews > Culture

Sects and the city

Culture | By ACLU logic, many cities have names that violate the Constitution

Issue: "Iraq: Present and past," June 12, 2004

SOMEONE AT THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES Union has apparently, with the help of a magnifying glass, spotted a miniscule cross in the seal of the city of Los Angeles. The detail is part of the seal that represents the city's historical heritage, which is traced back to early Spanish missions. But the ACLU is suing to have the cross expunged as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

City seals have been targets of the ACLU and their allies for some time. The pattern has usually been to go into some small town and object loudly to a religious allusion on a logo that dates from less sensitive days, and threaten a lawsuit. Usually, the town-not wanting to use taxpayer money in court, even if it might win-caves.

But why is it that militant secularists are so outraged over visual symbols but are oblivious to actual words? There is a little cross in the city seal, but the very name "Los Angeles" means "the Angels." This refers not to the baseball team in Anaheim but to the spiritual beings whose existence is affirmed by Christian teaching. The case will presumably be heard in the capital of California, "Sacramento," the Spanish word for "sacrament." The 9th Circuit federal appeals court, which ruled to censor the word "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, meets in "San Francisco," a city named after St. Francis.

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Why strain at the gnat of visual images (which in this case is about the size of a gnat) while swallowing references to Christianity in language (although admittedly often a foreign language) that are everywhere in American place names? Shouldn't the separation of church and state mandate the separation of church and geography?

Many American cities are named for Roman Catholic saints. California has, according to a rough count from the atlas, 60 of them, from Santa Ana (St. Anne) to San Ysidro (St. Isador). And it isn't just California that does this. Missouri has 21 cities named after saints, from St. Louis to Ste. Genevieve. Texas has 27 cities whose names begin with "St." or "San" or "Santa."

Does that mean that Roman Catholicism is the established religion of those cities? Should Protestants who do not agree with veneration of saints file lawsuits against these cities?

Then there are the place names that Protestants are fine with, but are clearly references to the Christian Bible: Bethlehem, Pa.; Goshen, Ind.; Canaan, Conn.; Zion National Park. There are at least half a dozen states that have a Bethany.

Even if these might be permissible, surely it is an official establishment of religion to have place names that are direct references to the content of Christian belief. Santa Fe means "Holy Faith." Santa Cruz means "Holy Cross." Corpus Christi means "the Body of Christ." The Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico are named after the "Blood of Christ." The meaning of these names is very clear to our many Spanish-speaking immigrants in our increasingly multicultural society.

And what about the Christian doctrines alluded to in plain English in places like Providence, R.I.? Or Trinity, Texas?

And how can we allow Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois to all have a "Christian County"? What about residents in those counties who are not Christians? How does living in a county with such an exclusionary name make them feel?

Language carries much more meaning than a mere visual image. Surely these words carry more of an explicit Christian meaning than a mere visual image. In order to achieve a purely religion-free public square, the ACLU really needs to tackle these names.

That might tax the litigation budget even of the ACLU. These communities could be expected to fight this time, since changing all of the signs, stationery, maps, atlases, and Chamber of Commerce pamphlets would be even more expensive than court costs.

These Christian place names do not seem to bother anyone. Most people, even those who do not share the religion that gave these places their names, do not see them as in any way establishing a state religion. But a visual image in the city's logo does?

Christianity has a historical and a still-living cultural presence in this country that is hard to deny and, however hard the militant secularists try, impossible or at least cost-prohibitive to reverse.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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