BREAKING: Court says cross-shaped memorial not a violation of Constitution

by Gregory Tomlin, |
The "Peace Cross" in Bladensburg, Maryland, created by the American Legion to honor the fallen of World War I. | Liberty Institute

BALTIMORE (Christian Examiner) -- The U.S. District Court in Maryland, in a decision almost certainly to be appealed by secular humanists, has ruled that a cross-shaped war monument on public land can remain.

On Nov. 30, the district court rejected the claim of the American Humanist Association that the cross on public land – funded by the American Legion in honor of Prince George's County residents who died in World War I – represented any establishment of religion or the preference of Christianity over other religions.

The court said in its ruling that while the construction of a Latin cross can be for a religious purpose, it can "also be motivated by 'the sea of crosses' marking graves of American servicemen who died overseas. The Monument's secular commemorative purpose is reinforced by the plaque, the American Legion's seal, and the words 'valor,' 'endurance,' 'courage,' and 'devotion' written on it. None of these features any religious reference."

The court added that because there is no religious language attached to the structure, it merely serves as a memorial and does not "set the imprimatur of the state on a particular creed."

The 40-foot-tall cross at the Veterans Memorial Park in Bladensburg is known locally as the "Peace Cross," according the Baltimore Sun. It does not bear the image of Jesus or have any religious references inscribed on it, the paper said.

The Monument's secular commemorative purpose is reinforced by the plaque, the American Legion's seal, and the words 'valor,' 'endurance,' 'courage,' and 'devotion' written on it. None of these features any religious reference.

A spokesman for the American Humanist Association said the group is considering other legal options now, including filing an appeal of the ruling with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Roger Byron, the attorney with Liberty Institute who represented the American Legion, told the Baltimore Sun he was pleased the court faithfully applied the law in the case, adding that the ruling "helps assure both the courts and other government entities that might [want to] use religious texts or imagery that these are lawful under the First Amendment."

The American Center for Law and Justice also praised the decision. In a statement after the ruling, the ACLJ said the court understood that a Latin cross is not solely a "reaffirmation of Christian beliefs."

"It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people," the ACLJ statement said. "In other words, memorial crosses that include crosses do not constitute constitutional crises."

That is not a sentiment shared by past courts that have also dealt with claims of establishment brought on by the presence of long-standing memorials to soldiers in the shape of a Latin cross, and even by the crafting of a new one in Knoxville, Iowa, recently.

The Mount Soledad Cross, built in San Diego, Calif., in 1954, was the subject of repeated legal disputes for the better part of three decades. A California court originally ruled as the judge in the Peace cross case did – that the cross could stay because its purpose, along with the purpose of the 2,700 plagues honoring veterans at the memorial, was secular.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed that decision, calling the cross a depiction of government support for religion. In July 2015, the government allowed the Mount Soledad Memorial Association to buy the property where the cross stands.

In another case, an atheist objected to the presence of a white memorial cross at the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial. By the time the case was brought in 2001 by the American Civil Liberties Union, the cross had stood on a pile of massive boulders for seven decades.

A lower court ruled that the Mojave Cross had to be removed and the land around it could not be sold to area veterans to create a work-around, but the Supreme Court overturned the lower court's ruling in 2010. It allowed the National Parks Service to negotiate the sale of land to a veterans' group so the cross could remain.

In Knoxville, Iowa, in November, citizens voted out of office city council members who ordered the removal of a makeshift memorial for veterans featuring the silhouette of a soldier bowing before a white Latin cross – a grave marker. The presence of the memorial, meant only to remain until the town funded a bronze memorial for soldiers, irritated Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The so-called church-state watchdog sent a letter demanding that the memorial be taken down.

"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government bodies from promoting religion on public land, including through the display of the Latin cross – 'the preeminent symbol of Christianity,'" the warning letter from Americans United said.

Americans United has been silent on the Bladensburg peace cross.