WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A
40-foot-tall cross memorializing soldiers who died in World War I that sits at
a busy intersection in the Washington suburb of Bladensburg, Maryland, is
unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Oct. 18.
The monument "has the primary
effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in
religion," said a 2-1 ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based
in Richmond, Virginia.
The case was heard by a
three-judge panel made up of Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory and Judges Stephanie
D. Thacker and James A. Wynn Jr. Gregory, who dissented, said the government is
not required by the First Amendment to "'purge from the public sphere any reference
The First Liberty Institute
the decision "sets dangerous precedent by completely ignoring history." The
group, which supports religious freedom, represented the American Legion, the
defendant in the case, and plans to appeal.
The ruling "threatens removal
and destruction of veterans memorials across America," Hiram Sasser, First
Liberty's deputy chief counsel, said in a statement.
Known as the Bladensburg Cross
or the Peace Cross, the cement and marble memorial was erected by the
Snyder-Farmer Post of the American Legion of Hyattsville, Maryland, to recall
the 49 men of Prince George's County who died in World War I. The cross, whose
construction was funded by local families, was dedicated July 13, 1925.
The Maryland-National Capital
Park and Planning Commission acquired the memorial from the American Legion in
1961. It is located at Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1. The Washington Post
reported that the state agency has spent about $117,000 to maintain and repair the
memorial and has earmarked $100,000 for renovations.
The American Humanist
Association, a Washington-based group that represents atheists and others, filed
suit against the memorial because it is in the shape of a cross. It argued that
having a religious symbol on government property violates the establishment
clause of the First Amendment.
A District Court judge in 2015 said
the cross did not have to be removed from public land, saying that although its
Latin cross design "is undeniably a religious symbol," it is "not a
governmental endorsement of religion."
Writing the majority opinion, the
4th Circuit's Thacker said the lower court determined that a cross memorial
maintained by local government and located on public property "does not run
afoul of the Establishment Clause because the cross has a secular purpose ... neither
advances nor inhibits religion and it does not have the primary effect of
endorsing religion. We disagree."
"The Latin cross is the core
symbol of Christianity," the judge said. "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. Therefore, we hold that the purported war memorial breaches 'the
wall of separation between church and state."
In his dissent, Gregory said the
Peace Cross "has always served as a war memorial, has been adorned with secular
elements for its entire history," and added that sits near other memorials in
Veterans Memorial Park. "(Its) predominant use has been for Memorial Day
celebrations," he wrote.
The fact that in the memorial's
90-year existence and 50-year government ownership, there has been no
litigation until now "is a strong indication that the reasonable observers
perceived its secular message," he said.
A bronze tablet at the base of
the monument quotes President Woodrow Wilson: "The right is more precious than
the peace; we shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our
hearts; to such a task we dedicate ourselves." Also at the base are the words,
"Valor, Endurance, Courage, Devotion." At the center of the cross is a gold