BLADENSBURG – Judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, voted not to grant a rehearing en banc of a case involving the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, locally known as the “Peace Cross.” This decision effectively upholds an October 2-1 ruling by the same court that a […]
BLADENSBURG – Judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, voted not to grant a rehearing en banc of a case involving the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, locally known as the “Peace Cross.” This decision effectively upholds an October 2-1 ruling by the same court that a government agency’s maintenance of the memorial violates the separation of church and state.
Eight judges voted against the rehearing, with six for.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) and three Prince Georgians filed the initial lawsuit against the American Legion and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC).
A lawyer from the First Liberty Institute, which represents the American Legion, said they would appeal the decision to the United States’ Supreme Court.
The American Legion provided funding for the Peace Cross, which was constructed in 1925. The M-NCPPC acquired ownership of the memorial in 1961 due to safety concerns, as it is located at the busy intersection of Route 450 and Alternate U.S. 1.
The 40-foot marble and cement Latin cross bears a bronze plaque with the names of the 49 men from Prince George’s County who died in World War I, along with a quote from President Woodrow Wilson. The words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage” and “Devotion” are inscribed along the base.
It is part of a larger war memorial park.
Since the 1960s, The M-NCPPC has spent $117,000 for maintenance and repairs for the cross. In 2008, the bi-county agency set aside an additional $100,000 for future renovations. As of 2015, the organization had spent $5,000 of those funds.
In a statement of agreement against the rehearing written by Judge James Wynn Jr., he contends if the court were to determine the Peace Cross served a purely secular purpose, they would be exercising an unlawful power to strip certain symbols of their historically and culturally religious significance.
“To allow this court to circumscribe the Bladensburg Cross’s meaning and power, as the Commission and its amici request, would empower this court to diminish the Latin cross’s many years of accrued religious symbolism, and thereby amount to the state degradation of religion that the Framers feared and sought to proscribe,” Wynn wrote. “Indeed, were this court to accept that the Latin cross’s predominantly sectarian meaning could be overcome by a plaque, a small secular symbol, and four engraved words, as the Commission maintains, we would necessarily grant the government – and the judiciary, in particular – broad latitude to define and shape religious belief and meaning.”
Other judges disagreed.
“This memorial and this cross have stood for almost one full century,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, III wrote. “Life and change flow by the small park in the form of impatient cars and trucks. That is disturbance enough. Veterans Memorial Park may not be Arlington National Cemetery, but it is the next thing to it. I would let the cross remain and let those honored rest in peace.”
In another dissent, Judge Paul Niemeyer argues the panel misinterpreted previous cases involving the separation of church and state, and that the decision puts similar monuments across the country at risk.
“The panel, in a 2-1 decision, will now have the monument removed or destroyed because, as it concludes, its presence on public land amounts to a violation of the Establishment Clause, although no Supreme Court case has ever held that the Establishment Clause prohibits such monuments,” Niemeyer wrote. “Indeed, it has held to the contrary – that ‘the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment allows the display’ of monuments like the one here.”
Michael Riddick, an Army veteran and Clinton resident, hopes the Supreme Court will rule on the issue. He called the Court of Appeals’ decision not to rehear the case “an injustice to veterans as a whole.”
“As a veteran, I think having an honor bestowed upon any given war, or any veteran, is a huge undertaking,” Riddick said, “But also it shows that the community and the nation cares and is by way of saying thank you for what we’ve sacrificed for.”
However, Monica Miller, senior council for the AHA Appignani Humanist Legal Center, she believes the case will be picked up by the Supreme Court.
Miller said the Supreme Court would typically only review cases in which there is a substantial division of opinions among the lower courts. In general, she said, courts have ruled memorial crosses are unconstitutional.
“This is a big win not only for separation of church and state but for all non-Christian veterans who are excluded from an enormous Christian cross war memorial,” Miller, said. “The court correctly upheld its previous ruling that the cross unconstitutionally endorses Christianity and favors Christian soldiers to the exclusion of all others.”
Riddick does not believe the memorial has religious significance, but he can understand people who might drive by the structure without any further context might see it as sacred.
“Once you start diving into the weeds and pulling back the peels on the onion, it’s like okay, it’s not a religious symbol, it’s an article that’s honoring veterans, and their perception would change,” he said.
Bob Wess, an air force veteran who lives in Bowie, called the court’s decision not to rehear the case a “political decision” rather than a “judicial decision.”
“It really represents, in my opinion, about 60 years of a judicial shift to the left, and in many ways, the decision simply lacks common sense. The memorial was put in place by individuals within the local community, and it represents their particular values,” Wess said.
In 2015, a district court ruled the Peace Cross served a primarily secular purpose.