Supreme Court will decide case of Maryland’s controversial Peace Cross

Supreme Court will decide case of Maryland’s controversial Peace Cross November 4, 2018

Longtime Bench-sitters may remember this story from several years back:

A complaint filed by an atheist group asking for the removal of Bladensburg’s Peace Cross — a longtime community fixture dedicated to Prince George’s County veterans — has stoked debate and opposition from officials and residents across the county.


The Peace Cross was dedicated in 1925 in honor of the Prince George’s County World War I veterans. It stands 40 feet tall with a large gold star in the center. Its base contains the words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage” and “Devotion” and a bronze tablet containing a quote from President Woodrow Wilson.

The American Humanist Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates on behalf of humanist and atheist causes, filed a complaint last month with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission saying that the cross, which falls on the commission’s land and sits at the intersection of Md. 450 and U.S. 1, is an unconstitutional use of a religious symbol on public land. The group said it will take the battle to court if no action is taken.

“I am definitely in opposition to taking down the Peace Cross,” said Bladensburg Mayor Walter Lee James Jr. “It is not a religious symbol. It is a symbol to remember those who gave their lives to protect the rights and freedoms of our county.”

After years of wrangling, the case is about to go before the Supreme Court: 

The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether a 40-foot cross in the median of a busy suburban Maryland highway is a secular memorial to those who died during World War I or an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The Peace Cross, made of granite and cement, 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. But the giant cross sits on a piece of land that has been owned since 1961 by a state commission that pays for its maintenance and upkeep.

The challenge to the 93-year-old cross began with the American Humanist Association, a nonprofit atheist organization that has filed similar lawsuits throughout the country. In September, the group won a similar case in which it sought the removal of a 34-foot-tall cross displayed in a city-owned park in Florida.

The high court has sent mixed messages when it comes to public displays of religion, allowing some monuments with religious content to stand while rejecting others.

In Maryland, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow ruled in 2015 that the cross could remain, calling it a historically significant and secular war memorial.

She said there is no indication that the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s maintenance of the cross “is driven by a religious purpose,” adding “the evidence of the commission’s secular purpose is uncontroverted.”

But a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond disagreed, finding the cross on public land an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

Read the rest. And stay tuned.

It will be interesting to see if the changed composition of the Supreme Court has any impact on the decision on this case, which fundamentally revolves around a question of religion — or the appearance of a religious symbol — in the public square.

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