Peace Cross

Maryland’s Bladensburg “Peace Cross” dates to 1925 when it was dedicated as a memorial to those from Prince George’s County, Md., who died in World War I. Does its location on a Maryland highway median violate the Constitution’s required separation of church and state?

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and colleagues from 29 other states are right to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a case that found a cross-shaped war memorial honoring World War I veterans violates the U.S. Constitution.

Morrisey and others in the coalition have filed a brief seeking to protect veteran memorials that include religious symbolism. The filing asks the justices to overturn a lower court’s ruling in the case of the landmark that sits in a highway median in Bladensburg, Md.

“We owe a great deal of gratitude to the brave men and women who sacrificed everything for our country,” Morrisey said in a news release. “Honoring their sacrifice with memorials that include religious symbols does not violate the U.S. Constitution and is one of many freedoms these men and women fought to preserve.”

VFW leaders in the Mountain State also support the move.

“The 13,000 combat veterans of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of West Virginia fully supports the West Virginia Attorney General’s urge to protect the memorial cross honoring World War I veterans in Bladensburg, Maryland,” explained Kevin Light. “This memorial is a vital, historical depiction to educate the public on the many sacrifices the brave men and women who sacrificed their life to protect the freedom and rights the American public have today for the past 100 years.”

The case comes before the Supreme Court after a federal appeals court in Virginia ruled against the 40-foot-tall cross, with the judges saying it “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion.”

Maryland officials who provide maintenance for the memorial insist the monument’s context and history show it is intended to convey a secular message of remembrance – not a religious message.

If the Supreme Court finds the Bladensburg landmark violates the Constitution’s required separation of church and state, experts say hundreds of similar monuments nationwide could be ordered down as well.

First Liberty Institute is representing the American Legion, which is seeking to have the lower court’s rulings overturned.

Sometimes called the “Peace Cross,” the memorial dates to 1925 and pays tribute to 49 men from the Prince George’s County who died in World War I.  

A plaque on the base of the cross lists those soldiers’ names and includes the symbol for the American Legion, the veterans organization that helped raise money to build it.

Since 1960, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has owned the memorial and maintained the memorial. Its location near a busy highway intersection makes it a public safety issue, goes the thinking. Lives could be at risk if the massive memorial were to decay and begin falling over onto travelers.

Supporters of the monument’s placement say the Supreme Court has made it clear that monuments that incorporate religious symbolism to send a secular message – particularly those that have stood for decades – do not violate the Constitution.

The monument’s shape was chosen not for religious reasons but to mimic the cross-shaped grave markers used for soldiers buried in American cemeteries in France and other sites overseas, its backers note.

In the years since the Bladensburg monument was built, other memorials have gone up nearby, including a World War II memorial, a memorial honoring veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars and a memorial honoring those killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

The American Humanist Association, an atheist group based in D.C., has led the challenge against the monument starting in 2014.

AHA members have said the cross “discriminates against patriotic soldiers who are not Christian, sending a callous message to non-Christians that Christians are worthy of veneration while they may as well be forgotten.”

The American Humanist Association advocates for the separation of church and state and has said the memorial endorses Christianity while ignoring non-Christian veterans.

Depending on what the Supreme Court decides here, the answer might lie in having ownership of the memorial transfer out of the hands of the state of Maryland.

If the sliver of highway land where the cross stands were again private property, then the Constitutional question would no longer apply.

It’s a case that many other states are keeping a close eye on. Joining West Virginia in the brief filing are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

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