BY SCARLETT SALEM AND PAULA MINAERT — The latest salvo in the battle over Bladensburg’s Peace Cross came on November 4, when county officials denied the American Humanist Association’s contention that having the 40-foot-tall memorial on public property is unconstitutional.
The move came in response to the AHA’s August 22 letter on behalf of its former communications director, Fred Edwords. According to the Washington Post, driving by the 1925 monument “made him uncomfortable.”
The AHA argued that it is unconstitutional for what it calls a “sectarian religious symbol” to be displayed on public land, and want it removed. The cross honors the 49 residents of Prince George’s County who died during World War I. It sits on a patch of grass near the Anacostia, on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
“It’s not a lawsuit yet,”said AHA attorney William Burgess. “It’s a potential lawsuit.”
The M-NCPPC outlined its position in a November 4 letter. It rejects the AHA’s contention that the cross is solely a sectarian symbol, pointing out that crosses have historically been used in war memorials. It is not unconstitutional, it wrote, and declined to destroy or move it, though it added it was open to further discussion.
Attorneys for the two groups met shortly after that letter was sent, according to Burgess, and discussed possible solutions, including moving the cross to private property.
In between this exchange of letters, a group of about 200 people made their opinions known at an October 13 demonstration held at the site of the cross. They held up signs that read, among other things, “Save the Peace Cross,” “Honor the Troops,” “Honor our heroes” and “This monument shall not be removed.”
They chanted, “USA!” “Save the Peace Cross” and “Stop your cars!’ They were asking passing cars to honk their horns to show their support.
Montgomery County resident Kathy Davis, whose father served in World War II, organized the “Save the Peace Cross” demonstration.
“Certain individuals believe this is a Christian cross. But this right here is a war memorial. It has 49 names of WWI vets that … died for us,” she said. “It’s been here since as long as I can remember, and I’m 53. All of a sudden somebody’s offended?”
Her son, Jesse Davis, was there as well. “I’m actually an atheist, and I believe it’s a memorial to soldiers. To tear it down because it resembles a religious sign is wrong.”
American Legion members from all over the state were at the demonstration. One of them was Mark Beard, American Legion, Post 217 in College Park. “I’m here because it’s a slap in the face to veterans from WWI. It’s important that we defend our WWI brothers who can’t speak. When we see the cross, they are thought of, they are honored.”
Other Legion members also expressed strong feelings about the situation. “I’m asking all the vets in the area to rally. If they fought for us then we need to fight for them,” said one. “We can’t let them take down this cross,” said another. A third commented, “If I have to stand alone, I will. We can’t let this happen.”
Veterans also turned up. Brad Hubbard, a Desert Storm veteran from American Legion Post 109 in Arbutus, said, “These atheists want to make it about them and not the people it was dedicated to. It’s like taking an issue with a gravestone: How dare you?”
But Burgess says, “This is not about whether there should be a memorial to these soldiers but what form it should take. It should be a secular memorial if it’s to be on public property. It’s not about destroying or degrading the cross in any way. It could also stand on private land without any legal concerns.”