L’Infame: Mounting Jesus
Stations of the Cross
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, March 25, 2007
What would Madison do?
Charles Dickens used to cruise cemeteries in search of names for his characters. Lamer “Lon” Bevill’s name isn’t yet on a tombstone though. The man lives in Starke, a miserable little city of 6,000 in a miserable little northern Florida county whose biggest industry is imprisoning, torturing and executing inmates. There are four “correctional institutions,” including the state prison, within a few chains’ lengths of downtown Starke. Until Jeb Bush ordered a suspension of executions by lethal injection on Dec. 15, when an inmate took 34 minutes to die because his executioners were incompetent, Starke was also the stage for a popular Florida sport: Four state-sponsored murders in 2006, 64 since the state reinstituted capital punishment in 1976. On March 1 a commission appointed by Bush to study the prickliness of lethal injection concluded that while the state had screwed up, it was nothing a few better protocols, written instructions and “ additional clocks and any additional necessary lighting in the Death Chamber” couldn’t fix. No joke.
Poe, not Dickens, would have found Starke the perfectly appropriate setting for a tale of gloom, beginning with these details: The city operates a water tower on its property. The name of the city is printed on the water tank. So is the name of the local high school’s football team, the “Tornadoes.” On top of the water tower, there’s a crucifix. A local official put it up there in the 1970s. The cross is floodlit with lights paid for by the city, lights that, back when the state still favored the electric chair, must have flickered delightfully in concert with the prison’s alleluias. The cross display has been repaired and maintained by the city, too.
Lamer “Lon” Bevill, our Dickensian exile, has lived in Starke for years. He’s an atheist. He must’ve gotten tired of having the First Amendment so prominently trashed. He sued to have the cross removed. Starke being Starke (there’s a little Starke in every town), fanatics started driving around with bumper stickers that read “I Support HIS Cross.” It’s not clear why the emphasis on “ HIS,” unless Starkies are also insecure about HIS sexuality or THEIR exterior decorating style. People wrote the local paper to show their support for HIS cross, there on the water tower to “remind us in this town that Jesus died on the cross for our sins” — not an unnecessary reminder for the people of Starke, though a useless one: they love their prisons and executions, too, not surprising for a county only slightly south and west of “Deliverance.” In the 2004 election 70 percent of its electorate voted Bush-Cheney, up from 64 percent in 2000. Regression is every fanatic’s specialty.
City officials got in on the cross act, too: “It really makes you mad to know that someone wants to take down something that represents Christ on the cross,” City Commissioner Larry Davis is quoted as saying in the Times-Union out of Jacksonville (a newspaper only vaguely to the right of the moonies’ Washington Times). The congregants of First Baptist Church of Starke sent a letter to the mayor and the commission to remind them of their pride in the cross: “Not only is it a symbol of our Christian faith but a symbol that we live in a county where people are not ashamed to show their faith.” You get the urge to tell them to get a life, but then Starkies’ business relies on the taking of life, which itself relies on the suppression of the moral impulse.
And yet. When Lamer Lon Bevill sued, the city did not officially respond except to sneak in a couple of maneuvers. It tried to call Bevill a citizen with no standing in Starke. And it removed the cross, calling the matter moot and hoping the court could drop the whole thing. A federal judge, John Moore, didn’t buy it. Last week, in a rare victory for the separators of church and state, whose cause has been a bit dismembered of late, Mooreruled the cross illegal regardless:
Despite the removal, it is necessary to grant the Motion because it is not absolutely clear that the City will not put the Cross back on top of the water tower at a later date. This is especially true in light of the fact that the City’s Motion to Dismiss Complaint as Moot speaks only to the instant removal of the Cross and makes no pledge, promise or any type of formal binding commitment not to replace it at some future date. Thus, the Court can only conclude that without the entry of summary judgment the City may at some point in the future seek to put the Cross back on the water tower.
Judge Moore must know all about Christians’ camouflaging tactics. And Moore (not to be confused with Roy Moore, Alabama’s Ten Commandments caterpillar) is no liberal. He was appointed by Ronald Reagan, though for all his allegedly conservative credentials, Reagan was no fanatic. Only his most lasting Supreme Court appointment has been, though with so many perversions of conservatism transfiguring the land into an embolism of Big Government moralism, no wonder Reagan is crying.
Which brings us to the final coil in this Sunday-morning sermon from the watertower. For half a century a 43-foot-cross has stood on city property on Mount Soledad above San Diego, ostensibly a decorative shadow to a Korean War memorial that has since flourished into an all-purpose memorial to the compulsive bloodbaths soaking the nation’s last half century. First Amendment advocates have been trying to have the cross moved, at least to private grounds, for eighteen years. Two years ago it looked like they’d succeeded. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the corrupt Republican congressman who has since been sent to prison (and whose federal prosecutor, Carol Lam, was naturally fired in the White House purge against disloyal prosecutors), inserted a provision in a spending bill in 2004 declaring the cross site a national veterans memorial and transferring it to the National Parks Service. Bush, to whom illegal activity is a form of pornographic indulgence, signed the bill, leaving it to a San Diego city attorney to remind his bosses that “based on current case law, such a transaction would also violate the federal Constitution and, in all likelihood, provide fodder for additional legal proceedings against the city.” But Bush has had wonderful success flouting every clause in the Constitution. The Establishment Clause is no different. The 4 th District Court of appeals, where all things Bush are upheld (including torturing prisoners, denying them habeas corpus, keeping them locked up without charge or proper legal representation for ever) declared the land transfer legal. In February, the California Supreme Court offered up the legal equivalent of “whatever” when it chose not to review that decision.
So the cross stands for now, as the First Amendment’s establishment clause does not. Should we now expect to see crosses disguised as war memorials sprouting up like weed on National Parks land? Why not. Enough trees are being cleared to make that replacement policy fit the dysconstitutional logic of this administration and its judicial axmen. And there’s always Starke, Florida, where the de-crossed water tower stands as a memorial to the Establishment Clause that was. HIS faithfuls sooner or later will take their lethal injection to what’s left of the clause anyway. It’s a matter of drafting the right protocols.