Maryland’s century-old Bladensburg Peace Cross war memorial will live to stand another day.
The Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that a 40-foot concrete cross is not religious in nature. Rather, the cross is a memorial and thus can continue receiving public funds- despite its obvious Christian symbolism. The Bladensburg Cross, sitting on public lands in a traffic circle in a Washington suburb, was originally erected in 1925. The cross served as a memorial to 49 local World War I veterans who died overseas.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) and the American Legion were locked in a lengthy legal battle to have the cross taken down. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito argued that would in itself be religiously charged.
“For nearly a century, the Bladensburg Cross has expressed the community’s grief at the loss of the young men who perished, its thanks for their sacrifice, and its dedication to the ideals for which they fought. It has become a prominent community landmark, and its removal or radical alteration at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of ‘a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions.’”
Bladensburg Peace Cross History
The cross itself has an interesting history. The American Legion commissioned the cross in 1919 as a memorial for the servicemen from the Bladensburg area that perished overseas in the first World War. At the time of its erection, the cross was on private grounds. Architect John Joseph Earley based the design on the scores of simple cross gravemarkers for fallen soldiers in Europe.
However, the private lands the cross stands on became public land in 1961 – making the Peace Cross a religious symbol on public land. The state has since maintained the cross and grounds, and Maryland taxpayers have paid for the regular maintenance and upkeep of the cross.
The 7-2 majority cited the structure’s historical nature in their legal ruling. They mentioned how the Latin cross was commonly associated with World War I, and how the U.S. used it in similar military honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross in 1918 and the Navy Cross in 1919. The decision reversed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that decreed the cross unconstitutional.
The Court also noted that Christian crosses often appear in contexts that are “indisputably secular,” including trademarks for Blue Cross Blue Shield and Bayer Group. It went on to make a distinction between preserving established monuments with religious symbols and erecting new ones. “Familiarity itself can become a reason for preservation. The passage of time gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality.”
Even the American Humanist Association recognized that certain cross memorials, like those that line Arlington National Cemetery, may be permissible when associated with individual soldiers. The Supreme Court argued memorials and gravestones serve the same purpose for many grieving families, and that this particular memorial did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, despite the fact that taxpayers fund the upkeep.
“The Religion Clauses of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, and the presence of the Bladensburg Cross on the land where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.”
In the dissenting arguments, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged the notion that serving as a war memorial could make a cross secular. “Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation,” she wrote in a dissenting opinion. Having the Peace Cross on a public highway “elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion,” she argued.
Ginsburg went on: “As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content. The venue is surely associated with the State; the symbol and its meaning are just as surely associated exclusively with Christianity.” Ginsburg says in her argument that displaying a cross on public property is exclusionary to the 30% of Americans who do not subscribe to the Christian faith.
The issue seems settled in the highest court in the land– but the court of public opinion is another beast entirely. And, undoubtedly, there will be future challenges to religious symbols on public grounds. What do you think? Do the unique history and memorializing nature of the Bladensburg Cross make it more than a religious symbol? Or does a nation built on the separation of church and state have a duty to remove religious symbols from public grounds regardless of their history?