THE UNAMBIGUOUS MEANING OF A CROSS…. Thee U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case called Buono v. Salazar, the year’s big church-state case. The controversy surrounds a large white, wooden cross, built to honor the war dead of World War I, given special congressional status on federal land. Lower courts found the display unconstitutional — official endorsement of religion conflicts with the First Amendment — but given the high court’s makeup, civil libertarians are concerned about the possible ruling and implications.

So, how did yesterday’s session go? At one point, the ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg suggested a preferable memorial would honor all veterans of the war, “and not just the Christians.” Justice Antonin Scalia found this outrageous.

“The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war?” Scalia asks, stunned.

“A cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins,” replies Eliasberg, whose father and grandfather are both Jewish war veterans.

“It’s erected as a war memorial!” replies Scalia. “I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of … of … of the resting place of the dead.”

Eliasberg dares to correct him: “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”

“I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead,” thunders Scalia. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion!”

Far less outrageous is the conclusion that religious symbols are not religious.

And that’s what it boils down to. Antonin Scalia, a devout Roman Catholic, wants to protest the notion that the symbol of Christianity is somehow inherently religious.

This is surprisingly common among conservative Christians who seek government sponsorship. The Ten Commandments, they say, aren’t really religious, so there’s no problem with the government promoting them. Creches (representations of the Nativity) aren’t really religious, so there’s no problem with the government promoting them, either. Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas have been watered down so much, they can be official government holidays without any trouble at all.

The goal, in each instance, is to ensure official, legal support for their faith. If that means stripping the major aspects of Christianity of their spiritual significance, so be it.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.