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Separation of Church and State issues

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

Peace Cross, MD

 

The "Peace Cross" -- a.k.a. the "Bladensburg Cross" -- is a war memorial in Bladensburg, MD. It was built as a tribute to 49 soldiers from Prince George County, Maryland who died in Europe between 1914 and 1918 during World War I. Their names are recorded on a bronze plaque at the base of the cross.

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 a 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). Its "address" is 4500 Annapolis Road. The cross is close to 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.

Since 1961, the cross and the land surrounding it have been owned and maintained by the Maryland Park and Planning Commission. It has spent $117,000 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 includes all religions; it applies to churches, temples, mosques, etc.

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A court case was launched to have the cross 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." 6

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 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. 5

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." 10

Webmaster's note:

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

The AHA also filed a lawsuit over the Maryland Peace Cross in 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. 9

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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 vertical pillar. It would then look similar to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC, or

  3. Relocated in its present form to a privately owned piece of land.

Webmaster's comment:

My personal belief is that relocation is the best solution. The cross would remain intact. It would be safer for people to visit because it would not be 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 moved to a larger and more attractive piece of land that would provide more appealing surroundings and would allow more room for visitors and ceremonies.

Modification to the shape of an obelisk would be my next choice. That way, the memory of those among the 49 soldiers who were Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Jews, Muslims and 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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2018-NOV-02: Maryland lawsuit is appealed to higher courts:

The Peace Cross case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. On 2017-OCT-17, by a 2:1 decision, a three-judge panel of the court determined that the Peace Cross is unconstitutional because it:

"... has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion." 7

Their 33-page opinion said, in part, that:

"... the display aggrandizes the Latin cross," 8 so that a casual observer would conclude that the state government is preferentially endorsing Christianity above other religious beliefs, and [above] no religious belief.

It also said that:

"The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity. And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds." 9

Their ruling is based on their opinion that It represents an unconstitutional endorsement of religion that violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Roy Speckhardt, the executive director, of the AHA said:

"Government war memorials should respect all veterans, not just those from one religious group." 9

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns the cross and the site on which it stands, joined with the American Legion in asking that the case be reheard by the full Court of Appeals. That request was denied. 8

During early 2018-NOV, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted an appeal of the Court of Appeal's decision. 7 Their hearing is expected in late 2018-DEC or early 2019. Their ruling is expected in late 2019-JUN.

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Arguments made for and against the preservation of the Peace Cross in its present location:

Maryland state Senator Will Smith, (D) said that the cross is constitutional. It:

"... is not something that is akin to, say, the Ten Commandments being put on the steps of the courthouse." 8

In a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court that urged the U.S. Supreme Court to accept an appeal from the Court of Appeals, Maryland officials disagreed with the lower court's ruling. They stated that the cross conveys mainly a secular message of remembrance. They said that a decision to remove or destroy the cross would remove:

" a cherished war memorial that has served as a site of solemn commemoration and civic unity for nearly a century."

That is, the state is opposed either to the destruction of the cross, or its relocation to a different site.

Monica Miller, senior counsel for the American Humanist Association, pointed out that:

"The government can’t prefer one religion over another, and it certainly can’t do so by placing a 40-foot Christian cross in the middle of a busy highway intersection. ... Without a doubt, it does not recognize or honor the service of [all] non-Christian veterans." 8

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) expressed concern that if the High Court finds the Peace Cross unconstitutional because it is located on public land, then grave markers at public cemeteries like the Arlington National Cemetery may also be unconstitutional. He speculates:

"... this isn't just about honoring the 49 men from Prince George's County who died. It's about the 400,000 graves just 13 miles away in Arlington Cemetery -- and millions more headstones across America. Scalise, who helped organize a brief from members of Congress, has been pushing the court to take this case and end the ongoing feud over public displays -- once and for all.

This is such an important case... if they take down Bladensburg, they're going after Arlington [Cemetery]. They're going after every marker on public land that has some kind of religious symbol -- whether it's the cross or Star of David. This is how people want to be remembered in their death, especially if they sacrificed their lives for our country. To think that a court decision could take that ability away... I'm so glad that Justice Kavanaugh is on the bench to participate in this case, along with Neil Gorsuch, because it means President Trump will definitely have a lasting imprint on this decision -- and hopefully, it's the right decision."

Like the case of the Peace Cross, the question of grave markers in Arlington and elsewhere could solved by transferring ownership of the cemetery from a government agency to a non-profit group. Such a group should have no difficulty in raising sufficient funding to support their activities.

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Comment by Rewire. News:

Andrew L. Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote:

"The Supreme Court often -- though by no means always -- overturns cases it agrees to hear. AHA has to win over at least one conservative justice, so many fear that the Court will allow the cross to stand. But doing so would fly in the face of precedent. With the exception of allowing a makeshift cross at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, no final decision in any federal court has allowed the government to maintain and display a Christian cross on government land.

Rightfully so. The cross is the symbol of Christianity. Using the cross as a collective war memorial not only disparages every Jewish, atheist, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, and other non-Christian in our military, it also represents -- in 40 feet of concrete -- the government aligning itself with one religion. (This, of course, is entirely different from the government maintaining a cemetery where individual soldiers choose personal memorials with religious imagery, including crosses; in other words, comparisons to the rows of crosses at ... [the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial] or Arlington National Cemetery are irrelevant.) ..."

The attack on the wall of separation between state and church is an attack on a fundamental freedom. It’s an attack on our Constitution. But it’s also an attack on true religious freedom. There can be no freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion. A secular government is the only guarantee of true religious freedom and, with this Supreme Court, it is in very real danger. We’ll know just how much when the court decides the fate of this cross." 11

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This essay will be expanded as new information arrives.

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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. "Federal appeals court says Florida cross must come down," Associated Press, 2018-SEP-08, at: https://www.wctv.tv/
  6. "Humanism," Wikipedia, as of 2018-OCT-30, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  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/
  9. John Fritze, "Appeals court rules that Peace Cross in Bladensburg violates the Constitution," The Baltimore Sun, 2017-OCT-18, at: https://www.baltimoresun.com/
  10. Sarah Henry & Monica Miller, "Leading Secular Groups Win Big in Florida Cross Case," American Humanist Association, 2018-SEP-10, at: https://americanhumanist.org/
  11. Andrew L. Seidel, "The Supreme Court Case That Could Bring Down the Wall of Separation Between Church and State," Rewire. News, 2018-NOV-12, at: https://rewire.news/

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Copyright Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Originally posted on: 2018-NOV-08
Most recent update: 2018-NOV-13

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