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Supreme Court Says 40-Foot-Tall Cross on Public Land in Maryland Can Stay

June 21, 2019 by Dan McCue
The World War I memorial cross at 4500 Annapolis Road in Bladensburg, Md. The Bladensburg Peace Cross, as the local landmark is known, was dedicated in 1925 as a memorial to Prince George County's World War I dead. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

WASHINGTON – A large, cross-shaped memorial to the dead of World War I that has stood in the grassy median of a local roadway for nearly a century, can stay right where it is, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Writing for the majority in the 7-2 ruling, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said that while “the cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol … that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent.”

“For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home,” Alito continued. “For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices to our nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark.

“For many of these people, destroying or defacing the cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment. For all these reasons, the Cross does not offend the Constitution,” the justice wrote.

The ruling is significant because of what it says about the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others. In this case, the majority appears to be saying that the establishment clause is not necessarily a bright line rule.

The American Legion and others who fought to keep the cross in Bladensburg, a suburb of Washington, D.C., argued that if the high court ordered it removed, the ruling would have a domino effect, causing scores of war memorials to be taken down across the country.

Their opponents, which included three area residents and the District of Columbia-based American Humanist Association, argued the cross should be moved to private property or modified into a nonreligious monument such as a slab or obelisk.

Two of the court’s liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined their conservative colleagues in ruling for the cross. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

In her dissent, Ginsburg wrote “the principal symbol of Christianity around the world should not loom over public thoroughfares, suggesting official recognition of that religion’s paramountcy.”

The case is American Legion et al. v. American Humanist Assn., et at. No. 17–1717.

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