SCOTUS Takes Up Cross Case

Nov 5, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review two cases involving a 40-foot cross in the median of a busy suburban Maryland highway honoring those who died during World War I. Both lower court decisions ruled that the cross violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The “Peace Cross,” made of granite and cement, was built in 1925 as a tribute to local men who died during World War I. It was paid for by local families, businesses, and the American Legion. But the giant cross sits on a piece of land that has been owned since 1961 by a state commission that pays for its maintenance and upkeep. It stands at Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, Maryland, approximately five miles from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The shape of the “Peace Cross” was selected to bear a likeness to cross-shaped grave markers used for soldiers buried in American cemeteries overseas. A plaque on the base of the cross lists the names of 49 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. Among the names listed are farmers from southern Maryland, a medical school professor from Georgetown University and a Medal of Honor recipient who was the president of the Marine Corps baseball team. The men were killed in action, mostly in France, in the final months of the war which ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Many others were affected by the flu pandemic and died during training in the U.S. 

                                             Photo Source: Religion News Service

The challenge to the 93-year-old cross began with The American Humanist Association which filed a 2014 lawsuit against Maryland officials, which argued that the cross “discriminates against patriotic soldiers who are not Christian.”

The questions presented to the High Court include: (1) Whether a 93-year-old memorial to the fallen of World War I is unconstitutional merely because it is shaped like a cross; (2) whether the constitutionality of a passive display incorporating religious symbolism should be assessed under the tests articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Van Orden v. Perry, Town of Greece v. Galloway or some other test; and (3) whether, if the test from Lemon v. Kurtzman applies, the expenditure of funds for the routine upkeep and maintenance of a cross-shaped war memorial, without more, amounts to an excessive entanglement with religion in violation of the First Amendment.

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