[PHOTO COURTESY OF FLYINGTEAPOT.HAAN.COM]
Houses of worship often construct enormous religious symbols, beacons for weary travelers on the road of faith. Yet here in St. Cloud, our supposedly secular university has fashioned a 12-foot-high Islamic crescent, Jewish star, and Christian cross to loom over passers-by—in spite of the institution’s legal requirement to remain neutral on religious issues.
These icons line the façade of Atwood Memorial Center, the heart of St. Cloud State University’s campus. Together these religious symbols form the “Coexist” banner, where the crescent takes the place of the “C”, the star stands in for the “X”, and the cross is the “T”. This banner resembles the well-known bumper sticker of the same message, although the smaller version affixed to autos usually includes seven symbols total, not three.
This banner highlights monotheistic followers of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity to the exclusion of other systems of belief. It singles out followers of the three chosen faiths, and places a special emphasis on them to get along with one another—implying that they are not currently coexisting—while excluding people of other faiths.
This banner ignores bans on public institutions from promoting certain religions, or religion in general.
This banner divides students and discriminates based on faith. The SCSU administration must remove this banner. It violates the conscience of students, staff, and faculty who do not subscribe to the three featured faiths, and it also places students of those three faiths into a special category.
Article I, Section 16 of the Minnesota Constitution states that no “preference be given by law to any religious establishment.”
The Constitution further outlaws the appropriation of state property for religious purposes, and the promulgation of any religion. This banner directly violates both provisions.
The school may claim that the banner’s intent is not to discriminate, but discrimination is the outcome. Good intentions do not excuse violations of civil rights or violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty.
In Allegheny vs. ACLU, one U.S. Supreme Court Justice said that a public entity’s display of Christian and Jewish symbols was “the very kind of double establishment that the First Amendment was designed to outlaw.”
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, the parent institution of SCSU, advises employees that displaying religious symbols in a public setting is illegal. From the November 28, 2012 memo “Guidelines for Holiday Directions and Celebrations,” posted on SCSU’s website: “Religious symbols or holiday decorations with religious content may not be displayed.”
The university has been warned in the past about excessive entanglement with religion and violating student and employee civil rights. In Stark vs. SCSU, the school was ordered to stop its relationship with local Christian schools because it “created perception of symbolic union between church and state” and “impermissibly advanced religion in violation of establishment clause of First Amendment.”
In “Insights for a Diverse Campus Community,” Winter 2006 (Volume III, Issue 4), SCSU celebrated the religious symbolism of the then-new banner: “The black-and-white ‘Coexist’ message is spelled out on the banner beginning with the half-moon symbol for Islam forming the ‘C,’ the Star of David symbol of Judaism in the center of the word, and the cross symbol for Christianity forming the ‘T’ which ends the word and completes the imagery.”
If the banner is supposed to encourage harmony, why does it explicitly reference only three religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity? Are all other religions equal with those three? What about atheism, agnosticism, and pantheism?
The school made the choice to display the less-inclusive “Coexist” banner with three symbols instead of the more-inclusive bumper sticker version with a symbol for every letter. Although the school’s motive for using the less-inclusive banner is unknown, and although the seven-symbol “Coexist” is problematic, too, the actual result of the chosen imagery is to promote the monotheistic God religions originating in the Middle East to the exclusion of all other forms of faith.
Coupled with SCSU’s inclusion of a religious display case in Atwood (with only religions with over ten followers on campus originally eligible to contribute), its use of Islamic law in preparing food on campus (late hours during Ramadan, advertising “Halal Fridays”), the promotion of Kosher (Jewish ritual) food availability on campus, and a foot-wash station built in Atwood for the convenience of Muslims, the university has adopted a pro-monotheism, pro-popular religion attitude to the detriment of minority faiths and non-religious people.
We must treat all faiths alike by not singling out any one, two, three, or other combination in particular. Students must be free to express their own personal and religious views, but SCSU has no right to promote or pick on any one belief or group of beliefs over any others.
Religious symbols are powerful things, and the risk that these symbols might be abused, misinterpreted, or cause anxiety in students affected by them is too great.
“Religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court in Coles vs. Cleveland.
If the school wants to promote coexistence, it can put up a different banner reading, simply, “Coexist”—without the use of religious symbols.
SCSU must steer clear of interfering in the religious practice of its students and adopt the secular behavior demanded by the law.
To comply with the Minnesota Constitution, the laws of the State and of the United States, and in the interest of fairness and equality in furthering the University’s mission, the school must remove the Coexist banner and reexamine its meddling in religious affairs elsewhere on campus.