The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about whether a the nearly 100-year-old, cross-shaped war memorial in Maryland known as Peace Cross violates the Constitution because is on government property. The case of the monument, located in the Bladensburg community of Prince George’s County, could impact hundreds of similar monuments nationwide.
First Liberty Institute is defending the cross. One of its lawyers, Jeremy Dys, told CBN News, “This case is very important for a variety of reasons. Because this area of the law is right now – as Justice (Clarence) Thomas has said – in hopeless disarray. And so there’s really needing some clarity for this.”
The legal team believes this could be the most crucial religious liberty case the Supreme Court handles this term. That’s because if the high court eventually decides this cross has to go, it could affect thousands of other crosses, including crosses on all federal cemeteries such as the national cometary at Arlington.
But if the justices make a broad ruling favoring the cross and other objects like it, it could put an end to judges and bureaucrats deciding – somewhat haphazardly – if a religious symbol or display is too religious or secular enough to be left alone by secular authorities.
That possibility has opponents of the cross worried about the court setting a precedent that could counter future efforts to eradicate religious symbols–especially Christian symbols– from public display.
The District of Columbia-based American Humanist Association has led the challenge against the monument. The organization and three area residents sued Maryland officials in 2014 in an attempt to have the monument torn down. They say that the cross “discriminates against patriotic soldiers who are not Christian, sending a callous message to non-Christians that Christians are worthy of veneration while they may as well be forgotten.” And they point out that other nearby memorials are smaller and across the street from the cross.
One of the people who brought the original case against the cross – Steven Lowe of the American Humanist Association – told CBN News, “The government on this piece of property is favoring a religion with this huge symbol. When you come across the bridge or approach it from any of the highways, you see nothing but this huge Christian cross.”
Journalist Renee Green spoke with Lowe and other cross opponents for her documentary “Save the Peace Cross.” In it, United Coalition of Reason officer Fred Edwords stated, “It gives the impression of Christianity and nothing else. And it gives the impression of government endorsement of Christianity.”
And Lowe told Green, “The existence of a memorial on public land is not a problem. It is just the use of the Christian cross as part of that memorial that we find contrary to the First Amendment and separation of church and state.”
Edwords added, “It looks for all the world like, ‘Okay, this is either the state of Maryland or the city of Bladensburg endorsing one religion.'”
In the suit against the cross, one atheist said he was traumatized driving by it. Green appears on camera in her documentary to point out that many telephone poles are in the shape of a cross.
“If the plaintiffs win this lawsuit, will all the telephone poles need to be modified?” Green asks, tongue-in-cheek. She adds, “I just hope they’re not traumatized by telephone poles while driving.”
The Peace Cross has drawn the support of Maryland’s governor and senators. Over the summer the state of Maryland filed an amicus brief in support of the petition to the Supreme Court, and Gov. Larry Hogan said the state was “determined to fight all the way to the highest court in the land to keep it standing tall and proud.”
The Peace Cross was completed in 1925, and it honors 49 men from the surrounding county who died in World War I. A plaque on the cross’ base lists the names of those soldiers, and both faces of the cross have a circle with the symbol of the American Legion, the veterans organization that helped raise money to build it.
Today, responsibility for the cross falls to a Maryland parks commission that took over ownership and maintenance of it in 1961 because of traffic safety concerns.
The first amendment/the first enumerated right:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.