The Supreme Court Will Decide Whether the Government Can Display a 40-Foot Latin Cross

Last Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether a governmental display of a gigantic, 40-foot Latin cross as a war memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, violates the separation of church and state.

On the surface, the case appears to be about one religious monument located at one busy intersection in one town but the stakes are, in fact, much higher. A Supreme Court decision upholding the Bladensburg cross could upend nearly 50 years of First Amendment law and risk further marginalizing religious minorities who are already facing growing bigotry, discrimination, and violence.

In the wake of last year’s Muslim ban ruling, many have come to question the Supreme Court’s fidelity to a core First Amendment principle — official religious neutrality. The First Amendment promises equality and liberty for all people, regardless of faith. That promise is carried out, in part, by the Establishment Clause, which requires the government to remain impartial when it comes to matters of religion.

The Constitution’s framers bore witness to the discord and even violence that occurs when the government singles out one religion for disfavor or gives preference to one faith or to religion generally. They sought to avoid that divisiveness by laying the foundation for a robust wall of separation between church and state.

In effectively ignoring the anti-Muslim bigotry at the heart of President Trump’s executive order, the Supreme Court tarnished these principles. The decision to hear Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association could present a timely and desperately needed opportunity for the court to recommit to the religious-freedom ideals enshrined in the First Amendment. Or it could be just the chance longtime opponents of the separation of church and state have been waiting for: an opportunity to strike another serious blow against the constitutional rules that have long curbed the government’s power to signal approval of one religious denomination over others.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a governmental entity that took over ownership and management of the Bladensburg cross in 1961, maintains that the cross was intended to honor the sacrifice made by soldiers of every faith who fought in World War I. It is simply, according to the state, an homage to the rows of white crosses that memorialize the American dead at Flanders Field in Belgium or at Suresnes or Belleau Wood in France.

But even if this were true, it tells only part of the story. The graves of Jewish soldiers in those cemeteries overseas “are marked with the Star of David, not a Christian cross,” as one group of Jewish war veterans previously explained to the Supreme Court. And some of those who served and died during World War I were surely Muslim. American Muslims have served honorably in every war from the American Revolution to today. 

These details will be glossed over in service of the commission’s argument that the display of a 40-foot Latin cross is secular. Nonsense. The cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity. Its display by the government sends the unmistakable message that Christians are officially favored and that non-Christians are second-class citizens who don’t belong.

As religion-law scholar Douglas Laycock put it, writing in another case on behalf of Muslim American veterans: “If government can sponsor a Christian cross and deny that it has done anything religious, then words and symbols have no meaning and the Court has consigned the Establishment Clause to the world of Alice in Wonderland.”

That’s exactly what some advocates are hoping will happen, however. The Supreme Court has long made clear that the Establishment Clause prohibits government from acting in a way that has the purpose or effect of advancing or endorsing religion, including by sponsoring an official display that promotes one particular faith. These constitutional rules recognize that, when it comes to protecting and maximizing religious freedom, words and symbols do matter.

Even if no one is formally coerced into religious exercise, when government promotes a religious message, it improperly ties religious beliefs to political standing. Those who follow the promoted faith are favored; those who don’t — well, we’ve seen what happens to them

Critics of these rules will urge the court to use the Bladensburg cross case to overturn or nullify them. If that happens, it will open the door for government officials across the country to erect religious displays that promote the majority faith and send the message that religious minorities are not welcome in their communities.

No matter how you spin it, the government’s display of a 40-foot Latin cross promotes Christianity. It has the effect of denigrating non-Christians and plays into the hands of those who are prejudiced against them. A Supreme Court ruling that permits the state government to continue sponsoring the Bladensburg cross would unwisely turn its back on our most treasured and enduring religious-freedom principles. 

We hope the court does not repeat its mistakes of last term and affirms the lower court’s decision, which held that the cross display unconstitutionally “endorses Christianity -- not only above all other faiths, but also to their exclusion.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this article reported that the cross is maintained and displayed by the state of Maryland. The cross, however, is maintained by a bi-county commission called the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The text has been changed to reflect that fact. 

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Anonymous

When we die, we all get to meet God's judgement -- especially after you fight a war for God and Country. I really don't think it matters what denomination or religious creed marks the grave.

Anonymous

When we die, we all go back to being primordial stardust, mixed into the minerals of the earth. If you wish to believe we have an imaginary parent (or Russell's teapot) applying an I granted right of judgement or mercy over us, sure go ahead and believe.

As to honoring our fallen veterans, they and their families do care what symbol is placed to mark their resting place. Just as one would not want an obscene object (e.g., a pornagraphic sex-toy) used as their gravestone or memorial, others do not want a cross. It would be seen as very disrespectful especially for veterans who gave everything for their country! And to have that country merge them into the "average" or most common religious symbol!

Putting the wrong (or for atheists, any) religious symbol is "blasphemous."

really

i saw this as a veteran memorial. How can you clearly miss the large memorial. what is wrong with u people

Rudolf F.

ACLI is on a ghost hunt here. the cross has nothing uniquely christian to it, e.g. it is also a plus sign that is used to add things, and has been used before christianity came along and will be used long after. there is nothing denigrating of other religions in a cross erected as war memorial. it explicitely commemorates all dead.

Anonymous

I disagree. A plus sign has the two lines intersecting at the mid-line of both lines. A cross has the two lines intersecting at a point halfway between the top half of the vertical line. You are fooling yourself. I would never mistake a cross for a plus sign. There is a difference, and everyone knows it. And I would never have a cross placed at my grave. It is a Christian symbol, PERIOD!

Anonymous

The previous comment makes a foolish argument, to equate a plus sign to the Christian cross. The two are completely different.

If one does not understand this, and believes them to be "equivalent", then consider another "equivalent" symbol: the upside-down cross. It is just as "equivalent" to a plus sign. So then would a Christian soldier want an upside-down cross as a memorial or grave marker? I think not, since many Christians consider an upside-down cross to be a "devil's cross" and anti-Christian.

No, a plus sign and the Christian cross are not the same or even equivalent. Absolutely no.

Anonymous

I just drove past the cross this weekend. It was erected after WWI and was for the purpose of honoring those that died in that conflict. It has a historic nature. I am torn. While I don't support religious symbols on public land, the public land in question is a piece of grass between two roads. Maybe a non-profit could take over the land and maintain it.

When it was erected the country was less diverse and posting a cross as a memorial was less controversial.

HP

I agree that religion should be separated from government. The current trend for government to try to legislate religion is appalling. However, this monument has historic value and is not offensive. The land should be signed over to a non-profit entity and maintained as is. This would be the right answer rather than trying to use this as a precedent to allow government agencies to display religious preference.

Zed

so if the American Legion bought this memorial and displayed it on their own property -- which was then seized by the government for roads projects -- couldn't you argue that if the government tore it down it would violate the American Legion's 1st amendment rights by way of eminent domain?

Anonymous

With the current makeup of SCOTUS, it would not surprise me if the majority support the State of Maryland's position. However, doing so would encourage and further embolden those who "believe" they are superior to the many minorities which make up an ever increasing portion of this country's population. As a member of several intersecting minority groups, I have witnessed and experienced the bias and bigotry directed at me merely by my existence. I have felt the pain of second-class citizenship by traveling through communities where 'christian' majorities have placed their symbols everywhere... indicating "others" are not welcome. I have heard the whispers and comments made about me and people like me, painfully reminding me that my existence is at risk in these places.
I wonder how many of those who have posted their excuses for supporting such crosses are, in fact, 'christians?' I would expect all of them... because I doubt any minority would want to marked with a cross, or live under such a cross (especially when we now know that 'christian' churches are replete with child molesters, sexual predators, and corruption - mental, moral and actual criminal).
The "Free State" has a Constitution... I would hope SCOTUS looks at both the US Constitution and the Maryland Constitution when making its determination on the propriety of this War Memorial.

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