Justice Scalia famously stated that crosses on graves have, well, crossed-over from an overtly religious symbol to one that may represent any dead soldier. How do philosophers treat such claims? How do we establish when religious practices, symbols, rituals, etc. have entered the secular public domain to the extent that the law can recognize them as such?

I'll have to admit that I think Justice Scalia is full of prunes on this one, as my grandmother would have said. And I think the case was decided wrongly by the Supreme Court. (Here's an account of the decision that's not just neutral, but still... http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2010/04/28/supreme-court-ru... )

As for your question, it has an empirical component and a conceptual one. The conceptual part calls for deciding what it would mean for a symbol not to have a religious meaning, and the empirical part would be finding out if crosses on graves now have a secular meaning.

The answer to the conceptual question might call for some bells and filigrees, but the basic idea is pretty clear: do most people, including in this case most non-Christian people, agree that a particular symbol (in this case, a cross on a grave) has no religious meaning? If the answer is yes, then Justice Scalia is right. If the answer is no, then he's wrong.

As for how we'd sort out the empirical facts in this case, that would best be left to people who not only understand the issue, but also know how to design good tools (surveys, etc.) for probing such matters. I'm not one of those. However, I'd think some things are clear. We'd want to know, for example, whether most Jews, for example, would be comfortable with the idea of a family member (or themselves!) being buried in a grave marked by a cross. And if the answer is "no" (that would be my guess), then we'd want to know what reasons would typically given. I'd bet a large chunk of my 403B that the answer would be "because it's a Christian symbol and my loved-one isn't Christian."

Since I'm a philosopher, my union card calls for adding caveats. Of course it's not true that each and every use of a cross on a grave is intended to have a religious meaning. We can imagine someone in exigent circumstances marking a grave with a cross just because that makes it likely that people who encounter it will recognize it as a grave. But that doesn't show that crosses have become secular symbols for purposes of the law, and it's an insult to both Christians and non-Christians to pretend otherwise.

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