The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday, June 20 that the Bladensburg Peace Cross, a 40-foot cross honoring those who died during World War I, will remain standing; however, the High Court sidestepped the opportunity to overturn the so-called “Lemon Test”, sometimes used to determine if a law violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause.
Liberty Counsel previously filed an amicus brief to the High Court in support of the 93 year-old war memorial in Bladensburg, MD, that American Humanist Association challenged as violating the Establishment Clause and “discriminating against patriotic soldiers who are not Christian.” Both lower court decisions previously ruled that the cross violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The “Peace Cross” 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.
The memorial cross sits on a piece of land that has been owned since 1961 by a state commission, which pays for its maintenance and upkeep. It stands at Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1, 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.
Though the High Court ruled in favor of the “Peace Cross”, it sidestepped the opportunity to overrule Lemon v. Kurtzman, in which the Court previously ruled that a Rhode Island law that paid some of the salary of some parochial school teachers was unconstitutional.
This test has led to inconsistent and contradictory decisions on the constitutionality of 10 Commandment monuments and cross monuments like the “Peace Cross”. Liberty Counsel previously argued that the “Lemon Test” should be replaced with an objective test that would yield clear and consistent results. The new test would analyze displays based upon history, whether the symbol is ubiquitous, and whether the display is coercive, i.e., is actively trying to proselytize or push a particular religious belief.
“Today the Supreme Court made a common sense ruling that the ‘Peace Cross’ war memorial does not violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “Today’s ruling is an encouraging example of the Court returning to the Constitution and abandoning these unworkable manmade tests. It is disappointing that the Court chose not to overturn the unconstitutional precedent on the Establishment Clause known as the ‘Lemon Test’. We must return to the Constitution and abandon these unworkable manmade tests/” said Staver.
Founded in 1989, Liberty Counsel is a 501(c)(3) non-profit litigation, education, and policy organization that advances religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the family.
In a 7-2 decision recognizing that the 40-foot “Peace Cross” memorial is not only a religious symbol but a national landmark that honors all veterans for their sacrifices for the country, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not require removal of the Maryland memorial that was erected 90 years ago in Veterans Memorial Park to honor soldiers who were killed or wounded in World War I. The Court’s decision in Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Society echoed arguments made in an amicus brief filed by The Rutherford Institute in support of the Peace Cross that removal would signal an improper hostility to religion that has manifested itself in efforts to remove any references to God or religion from public places.
“The controversy over this World War I memorial, like so many of the misguided disputes over the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ taking place in recent years, was yet another disconcerting and unconstitutional attempt to sanitize public places of any reference to God or religion,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of “Battlefield America: The War on the American People”.
“Ultimately, this case was not about religion so much as it dealt with intolerance, political correctness and a knee-jerk hostility to anything that might be construed as offensive to some small portion of the populace.”
In 1918, the residents of Prince Georges County, MD, began raising money to construct a memorial to honor the 49 county residents who had died in the service of the U.S. military during World War I, a conflict in which more than 300,000 Americans were killed or wounded. By 1925, with the assistance of the American Legion, the memorial had been completed: a 40-foot tall Latin Cross, which came to be known as the “Peace Cross”, located in the median of a highway and modeled after the crosses that mark the graves of soldiers who died in battle at Argonne and Flanders Field. The symbol of the American Legion is displayed on the Peace Cross, and a plaque at its base lists the names of the 49 service members who died during the war as well as a quotation from President Woodrow Wilson. There is no religious text or content on the memorial.
Since its construction, other veteran memorials have been built in the vicinity and the collection is known as Veterans Memorial Park. In 2014, American Humanist Association sued to have the Peace Cross removed, asserting that its presence on publicly-owned land violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. A federal trial court rejected the claim, ruling that the memorial had a primarily secular purpose and did not improperly endorse religion; however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed that decision, ruling that a Latin Cross is a predominately Christian symbol and the memorial constituted an endorsement of that faith.
In its amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overrule the Fourth Circuit’s decision, The Rutherford Institute argued that a government effort to remove all religious symbols from public life would indicate a government hostility toward religion that itself violates the First Amendment’s requirement of religious neutrality.
The Court’s opinion and The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Society are available at www.rutherford.org.
Attorney Michael J. Lockerby of Foley & Lardner LLP assisted the Institute in presenting the arguments in defense of the World War I memorial.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.
Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.
In response to the Supreme Court of the United States ruling allowing the Bladensburg, MD, Peace Cross to stand, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton stated, “We applaud the Supreme Court’s ruling. The cross has been used throughout American history to honor our nation’s war dead.
“The Bladensburg Peace Cross has become synonymous with veteran sacrifice. It was dedicated to the memory of local heroes.
“Military sacrifice made possible the guarantee of our constitutional rights. It is the duty of the courts to honor the Constitution as written by the Framers. Today’s decision not only honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice, it is a victory for religious freedom.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision is in keeping with a December 2018 Judicial Watch amicus curiae brief that asked court to reverse a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Today’s ruling recognizes that the World War I memorial cross is not in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”