SEABROOK – The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments regarding the future of the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, known locally as the Peace Cross, on Feb. 27, according to their term docket.
It will be the last case the court will listen to in February with the structure for arguments changed.
Each side typically presents their case in front of the court and answer questions from the justices for 30 minutes. However, both sides will get 35 minutes to plead their case, with the normal-hour oral arguments extended to 70 minutes.
The court will determine if the memorial, erected in 1925 by county residents and the local chapter of the American Legion to honor 49 local soldiers who fought in World War I but did not return, violates the separation of church and state laws outlined in the Constitution.
It is under the control of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission after the state acquired the land that it rests on in 1960.
The Peace Cross sits on state land at the intersection of Route 450 and U.S. Alternative Route 1. It stands 40-feet tall and has the words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage” and “Devotion” emblazed on its base. A tarp was placed over the top of the cross during the fall months last year for scheduled repairs, state officials said.
In 2015, a district court had ruled in favor of keeping the Peace Cross up, finding that it served a secular purpose. However, a 2-1 vote by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia ruled against it on Oct. 18, 2017, stating it “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion.”
The American Humanist Association, who originally sued to have the structure taken down, released their final brief on Jan. 23, explaining that it is unconstitutional for the government to keep maintenance of something that displays “preeminent symbol of Christianity and Christianity alone.”
As part of their reasoning, the brief uses a list of emblems of belief for government headstones, created by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that shows the Latin cross as a symbol for Christians.
“Although there are few absolutes in constitutional law, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment absolutely forbids the government from aligning itself with any one religion,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel for the American Humanist Association.
However, those who support keeping the Peace Cross argue that the construction of the memorial was never intended to be religious. First Liberty Deputy General Counsel Jeremy Dys said that mothers of soldiers who died in the war, known as “Gold Star Mothers,” wanted a tombstone-like symbol to represent the bodies of those who did not return home from the battle.
“Americans should honor the way Gold Star Mothers and the American Legion choose the remember the sacrifice of these men from Prince George’s County, Maryland,” Dys said. “And that was to die defending our freedom.”
A brief from First Liberty, who will be representing the American Legion, was not ready for release at this time. Dys said that the organization is “grateful” that the Supreme Court accepted their petition against the appeals court’s ruling.
One of the biggest supporters in keeping the memorial intact is county native and current Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. The Republican governor visited the site on April 19 to honor Second Lt. John Robert Pedevillano – a World War II veteran, Prisoner of War and Purple Heart recipient – and announced that he and Attorney General Brian Frosh would submit an amicus brief on behalf of the state to the Supreme Court in support of keep the monument standing.
“As a native Prince Georgian, I know how much the Peace Cross means to this community,” Hogan said. “Our administration is actively fighting the baseless constitutionality claim against this monument to our veterans and has been for many months… 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.”