BLADENSBURG – The Bladensburg Peace Cross will go under scheduled repairs as the Supreme Court announced its decision to take up an appeals case that will determine if the World War I monument will stay standing.
A tarp was placed over the top of the 40-foot cross before Veterans Day. The 93-year-old structure has noticeable discoloring and large cracks along its sides.
Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Spokesperson Anika Jackson said that the agency has been in charge of its upkeep since 1960 after acquiring the land from the State Roads Commission.
“The mission of the Park and Planning Commission is to protect and steward our community’s natural, cultural and historic resources,” Jackson said. “Central to that mission is historic preservation, including of the Peace Cross. As part of routine maintenance, the Park and Planning Commission has installed a protective covering to the top of the Peace Cross to prevent weather damage.”
The timing of the tarp’s placement on the cross comes as the Supreme Court announced on Nov. 2 that it was accepting a petition to review the decision made by U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to take down the monument.
The American Humanist Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the “non-religious” contend that the use of a cross as a symbol gives the impression that only Christians are being memorialized. The Court of Appeals voted 2-1 in their favor on Oct. 18, 2017, citing the use of public funding was “endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion.”
“We remain confident in our legal position and look forward to presenting arguments to the Supreme Court,” Monica Miller, senior counsel for the American Humanist Association, said. “The Fourth Circuit’s decision correctly recognized that the government’s prominent Christian cross memorial unconstitutionally favors Christian veterans to the exclusion of all others.”
The monument was erected in 1925 by a group of residents and the local chapter of The American Legion to honor 49 local soldiers who fought but never returned. Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel of First Library who is representing The American Legion in the case, said that it is clear that the monument was not intended to be religious as it features the organization’s emblem in the middle of the cross.
When researching the cross’ background for a documentary film called “Save the Peace Cross,” Executive Producer Renee Green learned that mothers of soldiers who died in the war, known as “Gold Star Mothers” wanted the memorial to represent a tombstone for the bodies that did not return from the battle.
“Different wars have different symbols, and you can see all over Europe, the symbol was the cross of honor,” Green said. “It really is a large tombstone because many of these young men who died because of the war, their bodies did not come back and these mothers and wives did not have a physical body to be buried.”
Despite the symbolic meaning, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association Roy Speckhardt argues that taxpayer dollars should be used to construct a new memorial on the same property that honors all veterans.
“The current Christian monolith fails to represent the pluralistic nature of religion among veterans, and among Americans,” Speckhardt said.
The plight of keeping the monument received support from local and national politicians from all sides. Eight members of Congress, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D- W.Va.) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) signed the petition that was sent to the Supreme Court. Governor Larry Hogan provided his support for the keeping the Peace Cross, calling the decision by the circuit court “an affront to all veterans” and the claims by the American Humanist Association to be “baseless.”
“As a native Prince Georgian, I know how much the Peace Cross means to this community…” Hogan said on April 19. “We are now working with the attorney general (Brian Frosh) to take action at the highest levels in the U.S. Supreme Court by filing an amicus brief on behalf of the State of Maryland. We will see this through and use all means available to keep the Peace Cross fully intact and honoring our veterans for another hundred years.”
A date for oral arguments has not been set, but they must take place before the end of the court’s term in June 2019. As of now, there are no backup plans for The American Legion to replace the Peace Cross should the Supreme Court vote against their petition, Dys said.
“If this gravestone is bulldozed to the ground, which is what I think our opponents would like to see happen, it is only a matter of time when the wrecking ball turns to other memorials all over the county,” Dys said. “This includes the Arlington Cemetery and thousands of memorials just like this one across the United States, so the Supreme Court is the last hope in preserving this over 90-year old Bladensburg World War I memorial.”