Legal Ramifications of Cross Burning

Legal Ramifications of Cross Burning

Many states ban the burning of a cross, such as California, Florida, and Virginia. In Virginia the law against burning crosses was tested in the case of Virginia vs. Black. The case began when Barry Black, leader of the Ku Klux Klan, burned a cross in a county and Virginia and was charged and found guilty of cross burning. Black appealed finding the government should not have the authority to regulate a form of symbolic expression especially when the purpose of burning the cross was not to intimate but for a ritual for him and his fellow brothers in the Klan. (Gey, 2005).

Black claimed the flag burning law in Virginia was a violation of his constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment. The First Amendment allows groups in society to freely express their beliefs without interruption by the government. Black claimed the flag burning law violated his ability to freely express his beliefs. In return the Supreme Court allowed for violations of free speech if the free speech is being used to intimidate, as a threat, or to incite violence. Since the burning of the cross symbolizes a past of violence, hate, and tragedy the court ruled it was not protected speech.

The final ruling of the court was crosses cannot be burned if the goal of the burning of the cross is to create fear, incite violence and for purposes of hate as well as create a true threat. Crosses can only be burned if they are being burned for a ritual. Despite this ruling the court determined Virginia’s cross burning law was in fact unconstitutional because juries are instructed to consider any types of cross burning to be illegal (Brannon, 2003). Under the First Amendment citizens have freedom of religion and the freedom to express these religious beliefs. When a burning of cross ritual is religious it is protected. Virginia’s law does not provide this protection.

As a result of the Supreme Courts ruling in Virginia vs. Black not all cross burning will be considered a form of coercion or threat due to a previous history of cross burning for spiritual purposes. The dissenting vote found that the majority vote was wrong and in fact the history of cross burning in Scotland does not affect American society and has never influenced cross burning for spiritual purposes. The only reason crosses have been burned in America is in order to intimidate minorities and strike fear of the potential repercussions they will face if they do not do as the white supremacy group wishes.

Burning of the cross is not a religious and it is not a positive part of American history. Free speech should never pertain to hate or embrace a history of hate as with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups. Cross burning should be illegal in all fifty states and result in hate crime charges when they are burned in order to intimidate or strike fear in the heart of an African American citizen. Throughout Southern American history Klan, cross burnings has been used as a tool to intimidate and threaten imminent violence against minorities and groups in society that do not embrace their beliefs or accept their racist behavior.


In the United States the burning of the cross has one significant meaning and that is off hate. Despite the recent ruling of the Supreme Court this behavior should never be conducted for any reason and should be a forbidden practice for all American citizens. If a cross is burned at the home or business of an African American citizen it is automatically assumed this is an act of intimidation because it is. There is no other reason to burn a cross than to send a message of hate or a warning to some group in society.

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