The Peace Cross may stand in peace, says the Supreme Court

Peace Cross The Bladensburg Cross, aka Peace Cross, was erected between 1919 and 1925 to honor Prince George residents who served in World War I. Photo courtesy of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission

By HEATHER WRIGHT — In a 7-2 ruling on June 20, the Supreme Court decided that the Peace Cross of Bladensburg did not violate the First Amendment establishment clause. The 40-foot tall concrete and granite cross, completed in 1925 to honor 49 Prince George residents who died in World War I, can continue to remain on public land, maintained by public funds.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., expressing the majority position in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, wrote, “The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind one to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent. For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark.”

He added, “For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.”

The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, [Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC)] elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion,” noted Ginsburg. “As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content.”

Those hoping that the earlier decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, declaring that the cross violated the establishment clause, were disappointed. However, they noted that the Supreme Court did not throw out the Lemon Test, the three-prong test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) for determining a violation of the emancipation clause.

“After our earlier victory [with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals], our opponents took this case to the post-Kennedy Supreme Court hoping for a complete upheaval of the separation of church and state,” explained Monica Miller, senior counsel at the American Humanist Association (AHA) via an AHA press release. “Fortunately, the Lemon test and decades of precedent have not been overruled.”

The M-NCPPC has owned and maintained the Peace Cross, located at the busy intersection of Routes 1 and 450, since 1961.

“The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is extremely gratified that our legal battle to protect the community’s interest in this historic symbol prevailed. This is a big win for our community and this Nation. For more than 90 years, this memorial has stood in the community as [a] reminder of the sacrifices made for our freedom,” said Elizabeth M. Hewlett, chairman of M-NCPPC and the Prince George’s County Planning Board, in a M-NCPPC press release.

Matthew Dowd, who represented the Military Order of the Purple Heart in the amicus brief it filed in support of the American Legion and the M-NCPPC, wrote in an email, “We’re thrilled that seven justices of the Supreme Court affirmed what we believed all along — that the U.S. Constitution does not require the removal or destruction of military memorials simply because they may have a religious aspect to them.” Dowd added, “Just as importantly, the Supreme Court, in its decision, has emphasized the importance of a memorial’s historical context when determining if the memorial violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  Hopefully, this focus will reduce the needless litigation about long-standing historical monuments.”

As reported in The Washington Post, Bladensburg Mayor Takisha James said that she had received a deluge of emails and texts from excited residents. “The community is overwhelmed with happiness,” she said. “We look at it simply as a memorial to Prince Georgians who fought on behalf of our community.”

According to Maryland Historical Trust documents, the Snyder-Farmer Post of the American Legion of Hyattsville allowed the building of the cross — begun in 1919 but halted in 1922 due to a lack of funding — to continue by successfully raising the remaining funds. And since 2014, when the AHA filed suit against the cross’s placement on public land, the American Legion has been its primary defender.  

“This was not just about a single cross,” American Legion National Commander Brett P. Reistad said of his organization’s victory. “This was about the right of a community to honor its fallen heroes. And that’s why the World War I veterans of Bladensburg sacrificed their lives, to protect the freedom of others. The American Legion does not consider these crosses, which honor so many veterans, to be religious memorials. But even if [they] were, freedom of religion is also a cherished right protected by our First Amendment. Americans can feel more confident today that veterans memorials, cemetery headstones and patriotic monuments throughout our country are safer as a result of this ruling.”

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