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It's interesting when a teenage agnostic and a federal judge understand the nature of the church better than do some church staff.

A plaintiff known as Doe 2 recently said that if s/he had to attend a high school graduation ceremony in a Christian church, s/he would be "forced to submit to a religious environment that … will make me feel extremely uncomfortable and offended."

Doe 2 (as in "John Doe") was one of five plaintiffs who sought an injunction against Enfield Public Schools to prevent them from holding the graduation ceremony in First Cathedral, a Christian Church. The judge granted the injunction, in part because she agreed that there was the "likelihood of irreparable harm" coming to the plaintiffs.

That phrase—"the likelihood of irreparable harm"—made me laugh when I first read it, but after examining the ruling, I understood. Doe 3 is Jewish and said s/he would not have attended the ceremony because s/he would "feel that the Cathedral is proselytizing its Christian beliefs … through its scriptures and symbols." A high school graduation is indeed an important cultural marker, so one can empathize how deeply disappointing it would be to miss it.

But as I thought about it, I realized the judge said more than she knew, because it is true that those who spend time in church really do have the likelihood of experiencing irreparable harm—for one thing, they'll have to die to self. After all, it is the sovereign sphere of another Lord, who, like his title implies, makes unreasonable demands on his servants: expecting them to give away their wealth and to love their enemies.

The sovereignty of this Lord is announced in many ways in churches, in word and sacrament, to be sure. But it's also proclaimed visually.

Take First Cathedral, whose main sanctuary seats 3,000. As court documents rehearse, a large cross rises above a stained glass cupola on the Cathedral's roof, and "is visible from all angles of the Cathedral's surroundings." In other words, you can't miss it. Above the main entrance doors there is a large cross (about 10 by 25 feet) embedded in the window panes. Stairs that lead from the lobby to the sanctuary are divided by a large fountain whose jets supply water in the shape of a cross. There are also numerous wall hangings in the lower and upper hallways on the way to the sanctuary, as well as in the lobby, including pictures of the birth of Jesus and a framed poster of the Lord's Prayer.

In the sanctuary, a large stained glass panel hangs behind the stage, the central figure of which is a large cross. This is flanked by two large banners, one of which states, "Jesus Christ is Lord" and includes such words as Savior, Redeemer, Deliverer, Truth, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

In other words, it's a Christian church.

The Cathedral said it would try to cover up most of the symbols for the graduation, but it would have been impractical to hide all the signs of Jesus' lordship. That makes sense. Jesus has this impolite way of making his authority known, even when we're trying to shoo him away so we can have a decent, secular event.

Does 2 and 3 got this. The pastor of the Cathedral didn't. He said that while there is "considerable art" around the building, "most of it is not religious at all." Either he was misquoted, or the court's description of the church was inaccurate, or—God forbid—the pastor doesn't understand the meaning of the cross.

But the sentiment is not unheard of. In fact, some evangelical churches pride themselves on eschewing any Christian symbols whatsoever. A few do so to honor the biblical prohibition against graven images. All well and good. But most of these churches, unlike their Lord, abolish the cross only because it's not a friendly symbol.

SoulWork
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
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