‘The Supreme Court has brought common sense and clarity to this important First Amendment issue…’
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated.
(Courthouse News Service) Sparing a 90-year-old cross that rises above an intersection just across the Maryland border with Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court rejected claims Thursday that the war memorial violates the establishment clause.
The Bladensburg Peace Cross was dedicated in 1925, a project of the American Legion to commemorate local soldiers who died in World War I.
Originally in a park with other monuments, the cross now stands in the middle of a three-way interchange under the care of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
In 2014 the American Humanist Association filed a federal lawsuit claiming the cross was an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, a position with which the Fourth Circuit agreed.
“In saving the historic Bladensburg Peace Cross from the American Humanists’ bulldozers, the Supreme Court has brought common sense and clarity to this important First Amendment issue: The Constitution does not require eliminating the great symbols of America’s religious pluralism from the public square,” said Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association.
Courts have long reconciled establishment-clause challenges using what is known as the Lemon test, a three-part inquiry that looks at whether a government action has a clear secular purpose, what the effects of that action are, and whether it would improperly entangle government in religion.
“We commend the court for ensuring that one group’s offended feelings over the memorial won’t diminish the sacrifices of our veterans or dismantle their memory,” said David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. “A passive monument like the Bladensburg Cross, which celebrates those who died to defend our Constitution and acknowledges our nation’s religious heritage, simply does not amount to an establishment of religion.”
Taking the lead in the decision, Justice Samuel Alito said the monument does not run afoul of the Constitution given how long it has stood, as well as its cultural context as a recognized symbol of those who died during the Great War.
“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,” Alito wrote. “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.’”
Alito noted crosses have taken on more secular significance in other prominent symbols, for example on Maryland’s state flag and the logo for the Red Cross. Considering as well the various American towns with religious references in their names, Alito said the government could not expect to rename those cities, or tear down every monument with a religious symbol, at the risk of making religion a divisive subject — exactly the opposite of what the First Amendment was meant to do.
“A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine with strike many as aggressively hostile to religion,” Alito wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined Alito’s opinion in full, as did Justices Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Elena Kagan signed on to most of the lead opinion, but did not agree with the portion in which Alito cautioned courts against using the Lemon test when evaluating monuments or other ceremonial symbols that carry religious connotations.
Instead, Alito said courts should presume “constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols and practices.”
Only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented in the 7-2 decision.
Liberty Headlines editor Paul Chesser contributed to this article.