Religious Symbols and the issues with Placement

By: Aditya Prasad


The Cross along with the Ten Commandments are some of the most important symbols of Christianity. They are identifiable across the world and are constant reminders of the Christian faith. However, in recent times there has been much argument about the public placement of these symbols, supporters view it as historical monuments and cultural icons while opponents view it as a state’s religious endorsement.

This constantly throws the Government in a tough spot, as it has to choose in a sense what the majority of a state wants. What’s interesting is that how the government tries to keep everyone happy tapering its state laws differently. The following article mentions some examples on what a difference these laws can play regarding public placement.

Earlier this fall, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to clarify the convoluted guidance it has provided in past cases. (On one day alone in 2005, the high court struck down a Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse, but upheld a Ten Commandments monument in a park on Texas Statehouse grounds.)

But on Oct. 31, the Court ducked the issue when it declined to hear an appeal of a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision ordering the removal of roadside crosses honoring fallen Utah state troopers (Davenport v. American Atheists).

Although the 12-foot tall crosses were donated by a private group, they bear the Utah Highway Patrol official symbol and are mostly on public land. According to the 10th Circuit, a “reasonable observer” would conclude that “the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity.”

What will this mean for other roadside crosses on public land? Would removing the police insignia cure the First Amendment problem? Is it more or less of a constitutional issue if other religious symbols are also used? The Supreme Court won’t say.


As seen above the Ten Commandments statue in one state was removed but the exact same one was preserved in another. The Supreme Court hides its face when called upon to justify its actions regarding these cases. This causes major confusion for other courts to set precedents across the nation.

One of the alternative ways to go about it is to allow the statues to be placed on private property instead of public property. However, this will cause much arousal to the supporters of certain symbols. Otherwise another way could be to try and plan a more ‘evened out ground’ by placing various religious symbols and spreading them out evenly across a state. But this will give rise to a new debate about placement, as some groups will prefer one symbol to placed closer to them while others will object. One can see the issues consistently faced by the government as it wishes to have its people freely preach their religion in public, but is what it doing justified?


What’s remarkable about cases like these (and there are many) is how far some Americans will go to preserve religious symbols on public property — and how far others will go to see that all vestiges of religion are removed from the public square.

With true believers dug in on both sides, it’s not surprising that the Supreme Court struggles to find a balanced approach that keeps the government from taking sides in religion, but allows citizens to display their faith in public spaces.

One lesson of the conflict seems clear: In a diverse, divided and litigious America, one religious symbol no longer fits all. If it ever did.


Upon observing Geertz’s definition of religion to this situation, one can truly see how the symbols provide powerful motivations in people and how in a sense a majority could critically influence the state’s decision. Further because we see each religion attempting to organize people by trying to create a general order of existence, there is a constant clash between different religions regarding the public placements of their symbols due to their inherently different meanings and values. Making it evident that one religious symbol can never fit all.

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10 Responses to “Religious Symbols and the issues with Placement”

  1. Kate Banducci says:

    I think that the issue of religious symbols and state endorsement will always be an issue. There are people on both sides of this argument that have perfectly legitimate points, which leaves the state in a tough spot. I liked how Geertz’s idea of symbols ties into the moods and motivations of these religious symbols in public spaces. These symbols have and will continue to have a great effect on people in their religious lives and in the lives of the public.

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  2. Nathanie C says:

    Christianity was the dominant religion in the beginning with the founding of America. The Puritans sought refuge and asked God to protect them through the rough winters, so Christianity has always been part of our culture and I don’t think you can possibly eradicate the various signs in America. I also think putting up or removing signs should be up to the person. It’s part of freedom of speech, right? As long as these signs are not inflicting damage to others, I don’t think there’s anything wrong.

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  3. Megan P says:

    This is a fantastic example proving that the courts must agree upon a definition for religion. Although this specific religious symbol is associated with Christianity, where do we draw the line with banning religious symbols? After learning about Geertz and Tweed’s definitions of religious symbols and religions, respectively, our class has found ways to categorize football, Joe Paterno, and Star Wars as religious symbols. Just as Christian symbols have been disallowed, billboards for Monday night football and Star Wars conventions may soon be banned if we cannot find a concrete definition for the limits of religion in the American court system.

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  4. Meena Iyer says:

    Sometimes, it seems as though the first amendment right we are guaranteed by the Constitution becomes more of a hassle than anything else. While I do understand that people have a right to exercise both their rights to freedom of speech AND freedom of religion, I can understand why the situation gets sticky from a judicial point of view. The fact that the US Supreme Cout has acted inconsistently complicates the issue further, especially because if we can’t look to the Supreme Court for a judicial precedent, then to whom can we look?

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  5. Claire Carter says:

    There is a very clear dilemma posed by this issue of religious symbols being placed in public areas because of the First Amendment. However, in a few of these situations it is clear that the circumstance in which the symbol has been placed should be in no way a violation of the First Amendment. For example, the roadside crosses are merely in memory of passed loved ones, and the fact that the state trooper insignia is present on the cross is just a sign that the troopers respect and honor those that have passed. Not an act of blatant support for the Christian religion itself. So I think that many times it is important that the reason behind the placement of the symbol is kept in mind because many times this can distinguish between support of a religion, and correlation with a religion.

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  6. adirby says:

    Often times there are a lot of debates over these religious symbols because, like you’ve said, the cultural significance. I think this topic correlates with the debates on the Founding Fathers and their views on religious symbols and religion itself. I think that some people think that the religious symbols in these areas are more than just endorsements of a higher power but an upholding of the monuments that were present with the founding of our nation. It’s interesting to see how some religious symbols and cultural norms become intertwined.

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  7. Syed Mehdi says:

    As this is a very difficult situation to solve, it seems there is no right answer to the dilemma. It only seems fair to be allowed to place whatever religious symbol one likes on private property. Similarly, if something is on a public space, it seems it may be borderline to build religiously specific structures or monuments. As this country is primarily Christian, it only makes sense that the majority of monuments on public grounds will be of Christian origin. Ultimately, I think as long as there is seperation of public vs private placement of monuments, there is not much more we can really ask for as this subject is so difficult to have a set resolution for.

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  8. dtruitt says:

    I think that religious symbols and religion in general will always cause issues in politics. In Florida, by my house on the highway, there is a huge Confederate flag wavering over the cars. This is a symbol for two things: the south and slavery. Symbols can mean different things to different people and may be offensive. However, people do have the right to express their feelings whether it be through words or symbols. There is no way to say no you cannot have that on your property. Also religion plays a large role in counties and states, therefore it is involved in politics. It is up to the specific area if they want to put religious symbols on public land.

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  9. jjflemi says:

    I think this is a very interesting topic, especially within America. America was founded as a Christian country, and stayed that way for a relatively long time. Ironically enough, America is also known as the melting pot. This was more applicable to people blending, and not necessarily acceptance of religions. As the founding fathers decided, separation of religion and the state is important. Religious symbols, regardless of the religion, should not be allowed on public land, because it is state property. If any and all symbols were allowed to be put up then it would be more acceptable, but people may feel offended to certain symbols. Regardless of what occurs, there will probably always be an issue with religious symbols and where they are and aren’t allowed to be.

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  10. ssainti says:

    I did not realize how much tension existed within the public sphere about putting up symbols, for example of Christ or the Ten Commandments, on public property. Even though the U.S Supreme Court has power to rule the constitutionality of symbols, it struggles to deal with the tension of advancing and not advancing religion for the sake of “the people” and its own image.

    If the tension about religious symbols did not exist among “the people” I wonder if the government would be more apt to vote against or for the display of religious symbols.

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