The Supreme Court ruled that a 40-foot World War I memorial in the shape of a Christian cross on Maryland public land does not violate the U.S. Constitution.
The justices held that the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which bars the government from unduly favoring one religion over another, does not require the removal of the monument from its location in a traffic median in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
The Peace Cross was dedicated in Bladensburg, Maryland, in 1925. It honors 49 soldiers from the area who were killed in World War I and features the names of the deceased, as well as a quote from President Woodrow Wilson, on its base.
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The Peace Cross has stood for nearly a century in Bladensburg, Maryland.
The American Humanist Association, a nonprofit that promotes the separation of church and state, sent a letter to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 2012 asking that the cross be replaced “with something more appropriate and universal.”
Two years later, the humanist association filed a federal lawsuit against the commission on behalf of three local residents, arguing that the cross’s presence on state-owned land violated the religious freedom protected under the First Amendment.
“To any passerby, a huge cross such as this can only be understood as endorsing Christianity,” the organization said at the time. “On public property, that violates the Establishment Clause. We can all support memorials to those who have fought for our country, but they cannot take the form of a massive religious symbol on government property.”
The state of Maryland and the American Legion, which built the cross, have long maintained that the memorial is secular in nature and aims only to honor veterans and not to promote religion.
In 2015, a federal judge ruled for the state and the American Legion. U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow found that the Peace Cross was “not a governmental endorsement of religion,” although she acknowledged that the so-called Latin cross “is undeniably a religious symbol.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit later reversed that decision, and the Supreme Court agreed in the fall of 2018 to hear the case.
Over the years, the nation’s high court has failed to establish clear guidelines on when religious symbols may be displayed on public property and when they may not.
In Lemon v. Kurtzman, a 1971 case about public funding for private religious schools, the court laid out a broader three-pronged test for determining when a government law or practice violates the establishment clause. The “Lemon test” said that to be constitutional, the law or practice must have a secular purpose, neither advance nor inhibit religion as its principal effect, and not result in “excessive entanglement” of government and religion.
But in 2005, the Supreme Court opted not to use the Lemon test in determining the fate of another arguably religious display on public land. The decision in Van Orden v. Perry let a Ten Commandments monument remain standing on the Texas state capitol grounds.
American Legion v. American Humanist Association by Anonymous LGS4Ky on Scribd
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