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

Last Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether a state government’s 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 state of Maryland, which 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 state’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 state of Maryland’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 state of Maryland’s display of the cross unconstitutionally “endorses Christianity -- not only above all other faiths, but also to their exclusion.”

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Annette William...

I grew up seeing this War Monument frequently. Both of my Grandfathers fought in WWI and thought it paid homage to all of the soldiers who fought and died with them. They saw no religious significance, but that was then. We are more enlightened about how our words and actions are perceived and can hurt others.
I would contribute to a fund that over this from a governmentally owned entity to private ownership. I do not believe public ownership or public funds should support this. I would hate to see it removed, selfishly because it is part of my personal history.

Annette William...

I grew up seeing this War Monument frequently. Both of my Grandfathers fought in WWI and thought it paid homage to all of the soldiers who fought and died with them. They saw no religious significance, but that was then. We are more enlightened about how our words and actions are perceived and can hurt others.
I would contribute to a fund that over this from a governmentally owned entity to private ownership. I do not believe public ownership or public funds should support this. I would hate to see it removed, selfishly because it is part of my personal history.

Mister Sterling

Well, our side (the ACLU's side) is going to lose this one. The majority will rule that the cross is not an explicit message that one religion is superior, or that it was an unintentional endorsement of one religion, or that it had only good intentions and didn't mean to offend, or that most people don't know that the memorial is state property, etc. There are many ways for the majority to rule in State's favor.

AnonymouS

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"

Somehow, footing the bill for upkeep and necessary repairs here falls under a government spending bill -- and thus the 'government is establishing the religion' by respecting the WWI memorial cross? God wasn't grandfathered into this case, so how can God's name be trusted on America's currency? So everyone uses America's money because a Treasury bill passed by the government has placed a religious sentiment on the currency, forcing every taxpayer to pay for it -- and all citizens to apply it in their financial transactions. So by decree of law, every American is religious and trusts God. This case says a lot about the splitting of hairs required for religious freedom.

Anonymous

Since Jewish, Muslim and Atheist soldiers fought and died in World War I, why not just add to the existing monument? The Bible's Ten Commandments also is opposed to killing so it's odd as a war monument.

Dr. Timothy Leary

I guess it would be to inflammatory to suggest that they burn it.

Anonymous

haha! good one!

Su Hall

As an atheist, I do not recognize, nor adhere to, any ORGANIZED religion, or theology. I am a very spiritual person - I just don't buy into the religions as man has perceived them and indoctrinated them into their religion's morays.
So, for MY country's government to place crosses or any other religious symbol anywhere, is against my rights! Tear it down or remove it from public space!!
I will not enter into any discussion about slamming veterans. I did not, I have not, I will not. It doesn't take a slab of concrete for me to appreciate what our enlisted men and women have done!

Anonymous

Public memorials have the hand of official state sanction behind them. Everyone who sees this memorial will first see a religious symbol, and only after explanation will they know it is INTENDED to be a war memorial.

Maryland is displaying, firstmost, a religious symbol and then it tells us (on a plaque we cannot see from afar) that this cross REPRESENTS a war memorial and not a cross. The state permits and pays for this universal religious symbol of ONE religion, to speak for the state. And they expect us to treat (believe) that this religious symbol "represents" fallen soldiers.

This memorial serves the exact same purpose as a gravestone. So if the state allows this to "represent" dead Jewish/other soldiers, what is to stop them from putting a cross on Jewish graves?

They can then put a plaque next to each cross-shaped Jewish gravestone to clarify their intent that the cross represents a Jewish soldier being "honored" by this Christian cross.

That is ridiculous. This war memorial is a cross used to respect soldiers who died - under another or no religion. It is discriminatory and blasphemous.

States are not allowed to denigrate a person's religion by "honoring" them with a cross.

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.

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