The conflict over religious words and images mounted in government spaces has become such a common battleground in the culture wars that, unless you're a conservative cable news channel looking to stir up righteous outrage, it seems barely worth opining about anymore. But the public-space skirmish has taken such a bizarre twist in the tiny Central California town of Orcutt that it has left Christians, liberals, atheists and conservatives alike shaking their heads.
During a town revitalization drive about a decade ago, a group of residents came up with the idea of creating a monument to the U.S. armed forces to be built on a sliver of land owned by the California Department of Transportation at a park-and-ride lot it maintains at the edge of town. Winning the sponsorship of the American Legion, the $60,000 monument was controversial to no one -- except Caltrans. The agency has rejected its construction because it would include a pole bearing the American flag, as well as words such as "United States" on the five planned pillars dedicated to the different branches of the armed services.
At this point, one would be permitted to wonder if the folks at Caltrans have their heads shoved up their asphalt. Why on Earth would anyone find it objectionable to put our nation's symbols on an unused slice of California real estate? If the decision stirs confusion and annoyance among moderates, it must seem doubly confusing to conservatives; it fits the usual right-wing meme about a tyrannical government preventing the people from exercising their free-speech rights, yet it's the (federal) government's symbols that are being blocked, not the usual displays of Christian piety that get the evangelical crowd so fired up.