By Elle Meyers
Special to The Sentinel
WASHINGTON D.C — The Supreme Court heard oral arguments about the constitutionality of a cross-shaped World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland on Feb. 27.
The 40-foot cross stands on a service strip between two roads about six miles outside of Washington, D.C, and has come under considerable scrutiny in recent years.
The question is whether the memorial violates the separation of church and state outlined in the Constitution.
The Bladensburg World War I Memorial, which is often referred to as the Peace Cross, was dedicated in 1925 to 49 local soldiers who died fighting overseas. The memorial sits on what is now publicly held, governmentally maintained land, and although when the Peace Cross was originally built the land was private.
Legal trouble came for the memorial in 2017 when lower courts ruled that maintaining the site with public funds was unconstitutional because it tangled together church and state.
The mid-morning arguments of the case, officially called The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, drew a line of spectators around the block, along with small groups of people holding protest signs.
“That cross represents to me that sacrifice those 49 men made during World War I,” said Janice Chance who arrived at the court with three other mothers holding framed pictures of their children who had been killed in combat. “I’m just sort of heartbroken that someone would say that’s offensive to them because we have religious freedom here.”
The crowd opposing the memorial was equally steadfast in reasoning that the Peace Cross is unconstitutional.
“I’m not against memorials to veterans, but they shouldn’t be religious,” said Arthur Siebens who stood outside the courthouse to voice his concern. “Most memorials don’t have any religion advocated (but) this one is flat-out Christian.”
The American Legion, a non-profit U.S veterans association, argued in the case that the Peace Cross is a non-religious symbol one that is simply used to honor veterans.
In response, Justice Brett Kavanaugh considered honoring soldiers who practice different faiths and pushed back against the argument.
“What do you say to the Jewish war veterans that say and for those Jewish soldiers, the government’s decision to honor only the salvation that Christians believe is hurtful, wrong and not in keeping with the promise of the constitution?”
In their closing argument, The American Legion explained that the memorial is a passive display and does not force anyone to support any particular religion.
“All symbols are sectarian, and if you ban sectarian symbols, then you are necessarily banning all religious symbols,” Attorney Michael Carvin said.
Protesters outside the courthouse with the American Legion worried that if the court ruled to remove the Peace Cross, it would set a precedent. One that would bring down other veteran’s memorials that are also deemed too religious.
The American Humanist Society, an organization that works towards advancing secular beliefs, argued that the memorial is distinctly religious and even exclusionary to veterans who do not practice Christianity.
They contested that for some the Peace Cross in Bladensburg is too overt a display of Christianity to be considered a non-religious memorial. They also argued that government money should not go towards the maintenance of a religious symbol on public land.
As a solution to the years-long dispute, The American Humanist Society advocated for moving the memorial from its current location to private land.
“Our preferred remedy, I think, is the least divisive in the outcome of this case is to move it to private land,” said Monica Miller, lawyer for the American Humanist Society.
The nearly 100-year-old cross needs some repairs whether it is moved or not, but moving the memorial comes with its own problems. The American Legion argues that moving the Peace Cross could end up destroying it entirely.
Ultimately, those demonstrating alongside the American Legion were against making any kind of change to the memorial.
“I think it goes all the way back to 1919, 100 years ago when mothers decided to have a memorial for their sons who died in world war one,” said Jeremy Dys, a supporter of the American Legion. “They looked at their son’s gravestones in Europe and decided to borrow the imagery from that to create this memorial.”
They argue that the mothers saw this memorial as a stand-in for their son’s gravestones.
The Peace Cross, they claim, became a place for the mothers to go visit as though it was the final resting place for their sons.
“The court’s decision below is very troubling because if that decision is allowed to stand not only will that memorial have to be desecrated or destroyed or removed, but we’ll also have to take a bulldozer to Arlington National Cemetery,” said Dys from outside the courthouse.
During arguments, the justices touched upon past cases that had to do with freedom of religion like “In God We Trust” stamped on money. The court also discussed the validity of tests that are meant to determine if a law is in violation of the First Amendment.
“We accept that people have to sometimes live in a world in which other people’s speech offends them. We have to tolerate one another,” said Justice Gorsuch. “This is the only area I can think of that we allow people to sue over an offense because, for them, it is too loud.”
The court is expected to hand down a decision for the future of the Peace Cross by late June of this year.
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