Imagine living on a block where your neighbors band together. Not necessarily in harmony, but in protest. They build a cross as a symbol of their righteousness and then set it ablaze as a symbol of their contempt all of which takes place on your front lawn.
Your neighbors don’t like you and they don’t want you there. Not because of your barking dog or your loud stereo, but simply because of you. They are protesting your very existence. But the disgusting part is that their act of bigotry is perfectly legal.
On Nov. 2, a sharply divided Virginia Supreme Court struck down the state’s 49-year-old ban on cross burning. The state law declared it illegal to burn a cross with the intent of intimidating a person or group. However, in a 4-3 ruling, the court decided that cross burning is a form of expression and is protected by the First Amendment.
Of the convictions thrown out, one involved two men who built a cross in a black neighbor’s yard and tried to set it on fire. The other involved a leader of a Pennsylvania Ku Klux Klan group, who burned a cross at a rally.
According to published news reports, Virginia Attorney General Randolph A. Beales has promised to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Cross burning with the intent to intimidate is a form of domestic terrorism, which is intolerable in a free society,” Beales said. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court does not agree.
“Without reading the case, I can’t understand why this is even news,” said Dr. Conrad Weiler, political science professor at Temple University. “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled several years ago that a city law banning cross burning violated free speech.”
Indeed, in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governments cannot outlaw speech on the basis of its content. So, sadly, Beales’ appeal will likely be in vain.
However, there is something viciously sinister about cross burning, and its recognition as protected speech, that is anything but acceptable.
In our nation’s history, cross burning has been used to intimidate and terrorize African- Americans. Those who were hostile to racial equality would burn crosses on hillsides and near the homes of blacks to frighten and threaten them into political and social subordination.
Such efforts were designed to prevent blacks from exercising any civil rights, including the right to vote. When such tactics failed to produce the desired effect, victims might be beaten, mutilated or murdered.
Cross burning is not a freedom of expression: it is clearly a crime of hatred. It is a symbol of violent attempts to suppress the rights of others. America having learned to live with this dreadful image from its tumultuous civil rights history is equally unnerving.
When we have warning labels on CDs and viewer discretion advisories on television, yet accept cross burning as free speech, our tolerance is misplaced. And when we rally as a nation to fight terrorism abroad, yet fail to recognize terrorism in our own communities, our patriotism is a cruel joke.