From the Editor: No Peace for the Peace Cross

The future of the Bladensburg Peace Cross is uncertain. A Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judge ruled in October that the memorial is unconstitutional because of its religious symbolism.

BY HEATHER WRIGHT — Uncertainty seems to have been cemented into the foundations of the Peace Cross. Construction of the concrete and rose granite World War I memorial began in 1919, but was halted in 1922 due to lack of funding. Later that year, the commissioners of Bladensburg deeded the property on which the cross stood to the Snyder-Farmer Post of the American Legion of Hyattsville. The Snyder-Farmer Post raised the remaining funds, and the cross-shaped monument, designed by John Earley (known as “the man who made concrete beautiful”), was completed in 1925.

Ownership of the Peace Cross and its surrounding land then came into uncertainty. To resolve longstanding contention about the parcel of land on which the memorial stood, a circuit court ruled in 1956 that the title for the land should be vested to the State of Maryland. In 1961, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) obtained the title to the monument and its surrounding land. The M-NCPPC still owns and maintains the Peace Cross, located at the intersection of Routes 1 and 450 in Bladensburg.

For several years now, the future of the Peace Cross — its existence and placement — have been uncertain. In 2014, the American Humanist Association (AHA), along with Fred Edwords, Steven Lowe and Bishop McNeill, filed a complaint against the M-NCPPC. According to the Baltimore Sun, Edwords, a Greenbelt resident and previous AHA executive director, remembered driving by the intersection and noticing the towering monument: “I thought, ‘Well, that’s odd. What’s that doing there? … That certainly gives the impression of government endorsement of religion.’”

Although in 2015 a federal district judge ruled that the cross was constitutional and that the M-NCPPC’s ownership and upkeep of the cross was “driven by a secular purpose, maintaining and displaying a ‘historically significant war memorial’ that has honored fallen soldiers for almost a century,” a panel of Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judges recently ruled that the cross was unconstitutional. Two of the three judges on the panel thought that its placement on publicly owned land constituted a government endorsement of religion and demonstrated excessive government entanglement with religion.

The uncertainty continues. In early November, the M-NCPPC filed a petition for a rehearing with the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (versus a three-judge panel).

An examination of similar cases indicates that the most likely outcome will be that the Peace Cross and its land parcel are auctioned to a nonprofit group. (Without an auction, the government could be charged with favoritism to organizations that want to preserve the cross.) The 35-foot Mount Helix Cross in California, built as a private memorial and also completed in 1925, was deeded to San Diego County in 1929. In 1999, after nine years and reviews by more than 30 federal judges, the county turned the memorial site and its maintenance over to the nonprofit Foundation for the Preservation of Mount Helix Nature Theater. And in 2016, after 25 years of controversy, including a 2011 Ninth Circuit ruling that the Mount Soledad Cross’s placement on federally owned land in California was unconstitutional and two Supreme Court refusals to try the case, the 43-foot monument and its surrounding land were eventually sold to the nonprofit Mount Soledad Memorial Association.

Why might the Peace Cross’s outcome in court be any different than that of similar memorials? In his dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory noted that the Peace Cross, unlike the Mount Soledad Cross, has functioned as a war memorial throughout its history, is located among other secular war memorials in Veterans Memorial Park, and contains secular features such as the American Legion symbol, a plaque dedicating the monument to the 49 deceased soldiers, an inscription quoting Woodrow Wilson, and the words “courage,” “devotion,” “endurance” and “valor” near the cross’s base. And while the Mount Soledad Cross is frequently used for Easter and other religious services, the Peace Cross’s predominant use is for Memorial and Veterans Day events (although three religious ceremonies were held there in August 1931).  

Despite what the Fourth Circuit Court saw as the monument’s “semisecular history” and secular elements, their majority opinion stated that “the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones.” The court felt that the sheer size of the cross overwhelmed its location, and this seems to be a considerable strike against its remaining on public land.

Since 1961, the M-NCPPC has spent approximately $122,000 to maintain the cross and its

land; these funds have been used to address public safety concerns and for structural maintenance of the monument. Any nonpublic association (I admit I’m rooting for the American Legion) that agreed to purchase the cross and its land would also need to continually raise funds towards these endeavors. But with private ownership, the memorial’s future would finally be certain.

I want the Peace Cross to remain where it is. I want this work of master craftsman and concrete artisan Earley to salute me on my way through Bladensburg with its arms intact. I want to be overwhelmed into remembering those who surrendered their lives in WWI. And I want to think of their families and community that made this historic monument — a monument with a real past and real memories, versus a newly constructed monument with no memories — possible.  A compromise that facilitates private ownership of the monument and its land seems the best way for the Peace Cross to finally stand in peace.