Supreme Court Inclined to Allow 40-Foot ‘Peace Cross’ to Remain on Public Land

The majority of the Supreme Court justices seemed inclined on Wednesday to allow a 40-foot war memorial in the shape of a Christian cross honoring soldiers who died in World War I to remain in place on government land in Maryland.

This is a landmark First Amendment case with implications for religious symbols on public property across the country.

During the oral arguments, a majority of justices appeared to accept the view that the monument was historically significant and its Latin cross design reflected the nationwide trend at the time it was erected to honor war dead with community memorials.

The 40-foot cross at issue in the Supreme Court case honors soldiers from World War I and stands at a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Md.CreditCreditSarah Silbiger 

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An amicus brief from family members of those honored in the monument similarly vouched for the cross to remain.

“For nearly a century, the Peace Cross has stood as a memorial, a representative gravesite and a tribute to the men it honors. In contrast to the ‘religiously-based divisiveness’ its destruction would provoke, the Peace Cross has for many decades brought families and communities together to remember the sacrifices and service of the soldiers of Prince George’s County,” the brief said, urging the court to let it stand for future generations.

Fox News reported.

The justices seemed to default to their previous approach of resolving such Establishment Clause appeals on a case-by-case basis, signaling they may avoid a broad ruling that would provide clear markers for similar legal disputes in the future.

The case is one of the most closely watched this term. Newest Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked tough questions of both sides, but gave no indication of how he would vote.

The Bladensburg Peace Cross, as it is known, sits in a traffic circle in the Washington suburbs, where it has stood for nearly a century to honor 49 local World War I soldiers who died in battle overseas.

Its supporters, including the Trump administration, say the 40-foot monument was created solely to honor those heroes and is secular in nature. Opponents call it an impermissible overlap of church and state, since it is controlled and cared for by a Maryland parks commission.

“For members of other faiths, that [cross] symbol is not a way to memorialize the dead and does not have that meaning,” said Justice Elena Kagan. “For many people, this is a very natural way to do exactly what they want to do. For others, not.”

Fundraising for the Peace Cross began soon after the “war to end all wars” concluded. Spearheaded by Gold Star mothers of Prince George’s County, Md., who lost their sons to battle, it honors 49 men, including four African-American soldiers and a Medal of Honor recipient. It was completed in 1925, built by members of local American Legion posts, with private donations. It was later rededicated as a memorial to honor all American veterans.

Inscribed at the base of the monument are four words: Valor, Endurance, Courage, and Devotion. There are no written references to God, Christianity, or religion.

A Maryland parks commission in 1961 gained custody of the cross and land around the busy intersection. The government now pays for maintenance and upkeep, though veterans groups regularly hold memorial services there. The structure includes the embedded symbol of the American Legion.

Similar cross displays on federal land to honor war dead are at nearby Arlington National Cemetery.

In Bladensburg, three area residents and the American Humanist Association filed suit in 2014, saying in court papers the memorial sends a “callous message to non-Christians.”

A federal appeals court agreed and ordered the memorial be torn down, moved or modified.

The Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Supreme Court has a mixed record on disputes concerning religious freedom and the separation of church and state, with the justices often using a case-by-case determination.

In arguments, a majority of justices wondered Wednesday whether new war memorials with religious imagery would be permissible, given the diversity of faiths, and the views of atheists or agnostics.

“Look at the historical context here. History counts,” Justice Stephen Breyer said. “But no more. We are a different country now, and there are 50 more different religions.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected suggestions such memorials can have multiple purposes.

“Does the cross really have a dual meaning?” she asked. “It is the preeminent symbol of Christianity. People wear crosses to show their devotion to the Christian faith.”

“It’s sectarian,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said of the Peace Cross, and also questioned whether its long history is enough to allow it to remain.

“What is the tradition?” she asked. “Is the that, in World War I, a cross was, or is the tradition that the government can put up sectarian symbols like crosses or a picture of Jesus Christ in honor of anyone because that’s within the nation’s tradition?”

On the other side, Justice Neil Gorsuch pushed back at suggestions the memorial’s large size itself was a problem, or “too loud.”

“Is it too loud? Is the Star of David too loud? Is it too offensive?” he said. “We accept that people have to sometimes live in a world in which other people’s speech offends them.  We have to tolerate one another. This is the only area I can think of like that where we allow people to sue over an offense because, for them, it is too loud. And we get into, as a result, having to dictate taste with respect to displays.”

“I think the Constitution tilts toward liberty in its structure,” added Kavanaugh, suggesting this particular cross memorial should stay.

The justices have a great deal of discretion to issue a sweeping ruling, but that appears unlikely.

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