It has taken five years of litigation — resulting in a four volume appendix — to determine whether a nearly 100-year-old veterans memorial is constitutional. On Wednesday, February 27, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments over whether the Bladensburg WWI veterans memorial violates the U.S. Constitution.
Opponents claim that the cross-shaped memorial violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it sits beside a stoplight in a publicly owned highway median just outside of Washington, D.C. Their solution varies. Some argue that it could be hoisted by a crane and moved elsewhere. Other suggest knocking the horizontal arms off the memorial. Still others would just pulverize the whole thing and put up a plaque, instead.
But none of those “solutions” are necessary.
The legal arguments are all written and filed, as Daily Wire Editor-at-Large Josh Hammer recently summarized. Soon enough, we will either receive clarity from the Court on an area of the law that Justice Thomas says is in “hopeless disarray,” or we will remain in our somnolent state.
Even as we evaluate the legal standards at play, we cannot forget the people behind this memorial. But for this memorial, they would be forgotten already.
Mothers of 49 men from Prince George’s County, Maryland who died in World War I designed the memorial, choosing the shape of their sons’ gravestones in Europe: A Celtic cross. Pearl Fenwick, Thomas’ mother, found out on Christmas morning 1918 that her son had been buried alone in Europe. Martha Redman, William’s mother, would later write to her U.S. Senator, thanking him for his support. In her thank-you note, she explained that she was unable to travel to Europe to visit her son’s grave. She considered this memorial her son’s gravestone.
John Henry Seaburn, Jr.’s family never forgot him. His mother and sisters (he was the only boy of the family) wrote a poem remembering him and had it published in the newspaper in 1924 — a full six years after his death.
Cordelia Stewart was one of the few mothers that actually sailed to Europe to find her son’s grave. In fact her son, Essell Maxwell, had no grave. His remains were never recovered or, if recovered, were never identified. The Bladensburg World War I veterans memorial may be the only memorial to Essell Maxwell in North America.
Henry Hulbert joined the United States Marine Corps in 1898 for “a love of adventure.” A year later, he found himself in Samoa engaged in such heroism that he would receive the Medal of Honor. By the time World War I came around, Hulbert was over 50 years of age and a clerk to the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps in Washington, D.C. Still, he managed to convince the powers that be to send him back into combat. General Pershing himself decorated Hulbert in July of 1918 with the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery. Just over a month later, Hulbert was killed in action.
Howard Morrow received the Distinguished Service Cross for darting through machine gun fire to recover a wounded comrade, only to die days later from the wounds he received in the effort. He was 18 years old.
Joseph Ford and William Lee were African-American soldiers. Like John Henry Seaburn, they served in a segregated unit, the “Red Hand Division.” The U.S. Army raised the division, but the French Army commanded it. They may have died in battle fighting in a segregated military, but they are remembered equally on the Bladensburg WWI veterans memorial.
These are just a handful of the 49 men meant by their mothers to be remembered by us. They chose a symbol of service and sacrifice that would grab our attention and cause us to remember their duty, honor, devotion, and courage.
Under no legal standard should a veterans memorial for men like these ever face destruction. Passive memorials coerce no one into any religious belief or activity. That this memorial recalls the cross-shaped gravestones of Europe should never constitutionally disqualify its display on public property.
We forget what we do not see. The Gold Star mothers and The American Legion who erected this gravestone to 49 sons of Prince George’s County knew that we would forget their service unless the living honored their sacrifice. The Supreme Court may just be the last hope for preserving the 90-year-old Bladensburg WWI veterans memorial.
Jeremy Dys is Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.