When do religious symbols change the feel of a place so much that they become an infringement on the rights of others?
Rural Vermont is a place known for its natural beauty—trees, rolling hills, and open green space. Recently, a Catholic couple who live on a hilltop in Vermont constructed a cross alongside a chapel on their land. So far, fine. Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religious expression give them the right to do this. However, this is no small cross. It is huge, and its owners want to light it up at night, believing that they have been divinely instructed to do so. Many of their neighbors are unhappy and want it to come down.
While many debates over the display of religious symbols occur because the symbols are built on public grounds (such as the cross in the Mojave desert), in this case, the cross is built on private land. But does its large size and its distinction from its surroundings move it into the realm of public space? Neighbors have taken the issue to the courts and are arguing against the cross on the grounds of its supposed violation of land-use regulations, contending that it is too out of character with its surroundings. The case is pertains to a rural area of Vermont, but it could have important implications for the larger battle over religious symbols and public space by designating, at least implicitly, what counts as public. Are the religious rights of the couple compelling in this case, or do they infringe on the rights of the larger public to have reasonably aesthetically pleasing surroundings?
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