Supreme Court says 40-foot tall Maryland WWI memorial cross can remain on public property

A veterans memorial located in Bladensburg, Maryland.
A veterans memorial located in Bladensburg, Maryland. | (Photo: Liberty Institute)

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a 40-foot tall cross erected on public property in Maryland does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

In a decision released Thursday morning, the high court ruled in American Legion v. American Humanist Association that a cross in Bladensburg meant to honor World War I soldiers did not have to removed, overturning a lower court decision.

Justice Samuel Alito authored most of the multi-part majority opinion, being joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Brett Kavanaugh joined. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

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Justice Alito wrote that while “the cross has long been a preeminent Christian symbol, its use in the Bladensburg memorial has a special significance.”

“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,’” said Alito.

“… there is no evidence of discriminatory intent in the selection of the design of the memorial or the decision of a Maryland commission to maintain it. 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 her dissent, Justice Ginsburg argued that the cross was unconstitutional, stating that “using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol.”

“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,” wrote Ginsburg.

“By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion.”

In 2012, the American Humanist Association sent a letter to the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission demanding that the Bladensburg Cross be removed.

After the Commission refused to do so, the AHA sued them on behalf of two members who lived in the area as well as a third individual from Beltsville.

U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow ruled in November 2015 that the cross was constitutional, arguing that it fulfilled a secular purpose of honoring fallen American soldiers.

AHA appealed the decision and in October 2017, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2–1 in favor of removing the cross. In March 2018, the Fourth Circuit voted 8-6 to reject an appeal in the case.  

Last November, the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments over the Bladensburg Cross, consolidating the two cases of American Legion, et al. v. American Humanist Association and Maryland-National Capital Park v. American Humanist Association, et al.

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