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Separation of Church and State issues.

Part 1 of two parts

The fate of the "Peace Cross" in Bladensburg, MD

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Peace cross

The "Peace Cross" -- a.k.a. the "Bladensburg Cross" -- is a Christian war memorial in Bladensburg, MD. It was built as a tribute to a group of 49 soldiers from Prince George County, Maryland who died in Europe between 1914 and 1918 during World War I. All of their names are recorded on a bronze plaque at the base of the cross. Most were probably followers of Christianity; some were probably followers of other religions, or of none.

Shortly after the end of that war, a local group -- The Prince George’s Memorial Committee -- was organized to raise money from area residents and businesses to build the memorial. John J. Earley -- an early 19th century innovator in the use of concrete -- designed the cross. Construction started in 1919. However, the funds ran out in 1922. The Snyder-Farmer Post of the American Legion in Hyattsville then took over the project. The cross was completed in 1925 at a total cost of about $25,000. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels talked of the soldiers who had bravely faced:

"... every duty expected. ... [The] cross will stand for time and eternity, like the principles they defended."

The cross is located in a highway median at the busy three-way junction of Bladensburg Road, Baltimore Avenue (U.S. Route 1), and Annapolis Road (MD 50). It has an "address:" 4500 Annapolis Road. The cross is close to both the U.S. Supreme Court building, and the Arlington National Cemetery. It is 40 feet tall, ten feet wide, and made of rose-colored granite and concrete. A large gold star is at its center. The words, "Valor, Endurance, Courage, Devotion" are at the base of the monument.

Unfortunately, the location of the cross is not optimum:

  • The names of the dead are not visible from the highway. They are obscured by bushes.

  • The cross is not accessible to pedestrians. There are no sidewalks or crosswalks to the traffic island where the cross is located.

  • There is no public parking at the traffic island. The nearest parking spot is the King Pawn Shop across Baltimore Avenue and Blandesburg Road.

  • Fred Edwords, a local resident and co-complaintant, told The Baltimore Sun:

    "You have to break the law and take your life in your hands in order to read the plaque on the cross. For all of this talk that it’s a war memorial and not a religious symbol, nobody really seems to care much about getting that plaque where anybody can actually access it."

  • A casual observer might well view the cross -- not as a war memorial -- but as a state government's attempt to promote Christianity on government property.

Since 1961, the cross and the land surrounding it have been owned and maintained by the Maryland Park and Planning Commission. So far, it has spent $117,000 in tax money to maintain and repair it. The cross has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2015. 1,2,3,4

The state ownership of the cross and the land under and around it raises a constitutional question. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires religion and the government be isolated from each other. This concept is often referred to as a "wall of separation between church and state," even though the separation is not restricted to Christian churches and Christianity. It applies to all religions: to churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, Wiccan circles, etc.

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A court case was launched to have the cross' location and ownership declared unconstitutional:

The American Humanist Association (AHA) has filed many lawsuits in an attempt to remove religious monuments and other religious symbols across the U.S. that are on public land. According to Wikipedia, modern-day Humanism is:

"... a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism and empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition.

In modern times, humanist movements are typically non-religious ... [and] aligned with secularism. ... Today, humanism typically refers to a non-theistic life stance centered on human agency and looking to science rather than revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world." 5

Most Humanists have no belief in the existence of a deity; they are typically Agnostics, or Atheists. Some are Deists, and believe in a God who created the universe and its natural laws, started it up, left many billions of years ago, and hasn't had contact with humans or the rest of the universe since.

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A similar lawsuit in Florida:

A successful Florida lawsuit was launched by the AHA and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in 2016. On 2018-SEP-07, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld a U.S. District Court’s ruling, and ordered that a 34 foot cross be removed from Bayview Park in Pensacola, FL. 6

Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF's Co-President, said:

"Reason and the Constitution have prevailed. The court has affirmed that individuals of minority faiths or no faith at all are full citizens of this country and may not be excluded or proselytized by their government."

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of AHA, said:

"It’s reassuring that the court recognized the illegality of an overtly Christian cross conspicuously displayed in Bayview Park. As the City of Pensacola complies with the court’s direction, it is our hope that this park becomes an inclusive space for all." 7

Webmaster's note:

The Pensacola park has always been "an inclusive space for all" to visit. However, some non-Christians will probably feel more accepted there after the cross is removed.

The AHA also filed a lawsuit over the Peace Cross in Blandensburg Maryland during 2014. They believe that the cross is unconstitutional because it and the land it stands upon are both owned and maintained by the state government. The trial court judge disagreed, saying that the purpose of the cross is not primarily religious, and that the site has been used almost exclusively for celebrating federal holidays. 8

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What would the options be, if the cross is eventually determined to be unconstitutional?

There are three obvious remedies. The cross could be:

  1. Demolished; reduced to rubble and carted away in pieces, or

  2. Modified in its current location so that it is no longer in the shape of a religious symbol. For example, the two arms on the cross could be removed and the cross converted into an obelisk -- a four-sided vertical pillar. It would then look similar to the Washington Monument on the nearby National Mall in Washington, DC, or

  3. Relocated in its present form and displayed on piece of land owned by a non-profit group.

Webmaster's opinion:

My personal belief is that relocation is the best solution. The cross would remain intact. It would be safer and more accessible for people to visit because it would no longer be located in the median strip at the intersection of three busy roads. Road safety would be increased because the cross would no longer distract drivers at the intersection. It would meet the strictest of interpretations of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It could be installed on a larger and more attractive piece of land that would provide more appealing and would allow more room for ceremonies and for visitors and their cars.

My second choice would be to retain the monument in its present location and modify it to the shape of an obelisk. That way, the memory of those among the 49 soldiers who were Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Jews, Muslims or other non-Christians would also be accommodated -- along with the area Christians who formed the majority of those who lost their lives during World War I.

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This topic concludes in the next article

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Peace Cross," Wikipedia, as on 2018-NOV-03, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. "Peace Cross," Maryland Historical Trust, at: https://mht.maryland.gov/
  3. Robert Barns & Ann Marimow, "Supreme Court will take case on constitutional challenge to Maryland’s Peace Cross," Washington Post, 2018-NOV-02, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/
  4. Ann E. Marimow and Michael E. Ruane, "A World War I cross under siege," Washington Post, 2018-SEP-21, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/
  5. "Humanism," Wikipedia, as of 2018-OCT-30, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  6. "Federal appeals court says Florida cross must come down," Associated Press, 2018-SEP-08, at: https://www.wctv.tv/
  7. "Supreme Court agrees to hear case to determine if Maryland's Peace Cross violates the Constitution," The Baltimore Sun, 2018-NOV-03, at: https://www.baltimoresun.com/
  8. Mike Murillo, "Peace Cross in Bladensburg could become center of Supreme Court fight," WTOP-FM, 2018-AUG-02, at: https://wtop.com/

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How you may have arrived here:

Site navigation: Home page > Religion & law > Separation of church and state > here

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Copyright Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Originally posted on: 2018-NOV-08
Most recent update: 2019-AUG-28

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