The Fourth Circuit Court of appeals has ruled that a towering World War I memorial — the Maryland "Peace Cross" — represents an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.
In a 2-1 decision, the Fourth Circuit said that the 40-foot cross, which has been in place more than 90 years, has the primary effect of endorsing religion and "excessively entangles" the government in religion because the local government must expend funds to maintain the site and because it is the only sectarian monument in view.
“The cross is by far the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection,” wrote Judge Stephanie Thacker, in the opinion issued Wednesday. She was joined by one other judge on the panel.
Chief Judge, Roger L. Gregory, dissented, saying that the monument easily passes Supreme Court tests for "establishment of religion," and that the government does not have the responsibility to "purge from the public sphere any reference to religion," quoting directly from seminal Supreme Court cases on the subject.
The cross, located in Bladensburg, Maryland, was built in 1918 but officially dedicated by the American Legion in 1925. In addition to the main memorial, which honors Maryland dead in World War I, the cross sits atop a collection of smaller monuments to locals who died in conflicts dating back all the way to the Battle of Blandensberg in the Revolutionary War. Its base features a quote from Woodrow Wilson: “Memorial Cross is dedicated to the heroes of Prince George’s County Maryland who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world.”
But members of the American Humanist Association found a handful of locals who claimed to be "triggered" by the cross's mere presence on local property, and who became "offended" when they had to drive past the cross regularly as they did errands around town. At one point, the Plaintiffs even, erroneously, claimed the Ku Klux Klan was involved in erecting the cross, in a bid to get town residents behind its removal. That effort ultimately failed, so AHA took the case to court.
A District Court Judge initially tossed the lawsuit, but Plaintiffs appealed.
The American Legion says it will appeal further to the Supreme Court, who ruled just a few short years ago that Ten Commandments monuments, which stood on Federal land for more than half a century, could remain up despite being symbols of religion. This was becasue their historical value outweighed their religious symbolism. That historic value is a key component of the Supreme Court's test for whether a monument violates the Establishment Clauses, and constitutes an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
This is the first "Establishment Clause" case in nearly a decade. Atheists filed lawsuits like this one routinely in the early 2000s, as part of a de facto national campaign to rid public spaces of any and all religious symbolism. Once the Supreme Court spoke on the matter in 2007, the lawsuits mostly stopped — but the Maryland atheists apparently wanted to keep the ball rolling.
The Peace Cross can stay up, for now, until litigation concludes, but town officials say they are making a plan to handle removal if need be.