U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has worked tirelessly and free of charge with First Liberty Institute and The American Legion to fend off court challenges that would remove military and veterans memorials with religious symbols, received the Philip B. Onderdonk Religious Liberty Award Wednesday at the 99th American Legion National Convention in Reno, Nev.
“The idea that we have had litigating organizations and political appointees who would want to make it a punishable offense to acknowledge God truly staggers the mind,” Cruz said after receiving a special-edition gold-plated .22-caliber Henry Repeating Arms rifle, engraved with images of a bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell. The award is named for American Legion National Judge Advocate Philip B. Onderdonk.
Cruz said religious liberty is “foundational to everything else. And I want to commend The American Legion because it would have been easy for you to sit back and say, ‘You know what, I gave my service. My time is done.’ But you cannot leave a man on the battlefield, and you cannot stop fighting for the country you love.”
First Liberty Institute and The American Legion have worked together for 13 years to defend veterans memorials and monuments with religious symbols, to keep the term “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and to successfully overturn a VA policy that prohibited prayers in services at a federal veterans cemetery, among other issues.
Before and after his election to the Senate, Cruz has happily provided legal representation to oppose such challenges.
Cruz represented First Liberty Institute and The American Legion in the case of the Mojave Desert cross, which ended in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision to keep the memorial in place and visible in 2012. The memorial along a highway in a remote part of southern California had been covered in a burlap bag and chained tight after two U.S. courts ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union and its contention that the cross was unconstitutional.
“It stood there for over 80 years until one day, the ACLU came along, and they were offended,” Cruz said. “Let me just say for a minute – everyone who gets offended at everything they see, can’t they just chill out? I see nuts doing offensive things all the time. You don’t have to whine about it, and you don’t have to run to a federal court and say, ‘Oh, oh, guard my eyes.’”
The high court victory, Cruz acknowledged, was slim. “It was 5-4. Those stakes should give you pause. We were one justice away from the Supreme Court ordering tear down of that veterans memorial. And mark my words, when they tear down the cross on a veterans memorial in the middle of a desert, we are but moments away from the next order to tear down the tombstone with the cross or star of David. That’s not America. That’s not who we are. America protects your right to live according to your faith and conscience. It is not government that should be an enemy of religious faith.”
Cruz also represented Pastor Scott Rainey, The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and others in a case that overturned a VA policy that denied mourners the ability to reference God in services at a Houston veterans cemetery. “You could not say Jesus,” Cruz said. “You could not say God. This is VA saying God’s name is not allowed in a military funeral. And a Houston pastor who refused to be silenced brought a lawsuit, and The American Legion brought me in, and I was honored to represent The American Legion and that pastor fighting for religious liberty, and we won, defending that fundamental liberty.”
In 2015, a cross-shaped veterans memorial erected 90 years earlier by The American Legion at Bladensburg, Md., was ruled constitutional by a U.S. District Court, but the case raised concerns for First Liberty Institute, according to the organization’s CEO, Kelly Shackelford, who presented the award to Cruz Wednesday. “One of the judges asked the following question during the oral argument: ‘If we just cut the arms off this cross, won’t that take care of any offense?’”
As long as battles continue over religious liberty, Cruz told thousands gathered at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, “I give you my solemn pledge that just as each of you has risen to the occasion over and over again to defend our rights and our freedoms that I will continue to be honored to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in that same fight, for that same freedom that makes the United States the greatest nation in the history of the world.”