WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a majority decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of keeping the Bladensburg World War I Memorial, locally known as the Peace Cross, standing in its current spot, citing that it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution that separates church and state.
The vote to keep the Peace Cross came back 7-2, which included all the conservative justices and judges Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan out of the liberal side of the court making out the majority. The opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, stated that the memorial, like other monuments, may have a religious purpose, but over time, lost that meaning.
Instead, its main purpose of being a memorial for World War I soldiers has still remained, which was the overarching meaning.
“The truth is that 70 years after the fact, there was no way to be certain about the motivations of the men who were responsible for the creation of the monument,” Alito’s opinion said. “And this is often the case with old monuments, symbols and practices. Yet it would be inappropriate for courts to compel their removal or termination based on supposition.”
The opinion also attacks the notion of the use of a cross as the symbol, stating that due to the mix of cultures within the country today, there is no clear-cut symbol that is a singular meaning.
Lastly, the opinion took into account the memorial and movements like it with its place in a community. Because of its significance for others and not knowing the original intentions by those who create them, the court could not rule to take the memorial down, the opinion said.
“Even if the original purpose of a monument was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment,” Alito said. “As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, a community may preserve such monuments, symbols and practices for the sake of their historical significance or their place in a common cultural heritage.”
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. It was erected in 1925 by a group of residents and the local chapter of The American Legion to honor 49 local soldiers who fought in World War I but did not return.
Supporters of the Peace Cross argued that it was never created with religious meaning. 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” as a place to replace a burial site for the missing soldiers.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented with the decision with the former stating that the religious symbol of a cross is “the principal symbol of Christianity around the world should not loom over public thoroughfares, suggesting official recognition of that religion’s paramountcy.” Ginsburg, who is also Jewish, read her entire 18-page argument aloud, a sign in the Supreme Court when a justice disagrees strongly with the majority’s decision.
“As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content,” Ginsburg said. “The venue is surely associated with the state; the symbol and its meaning are just as surely associated exclusively with Christianity.”
Following the decision, supporters for the Peace Cross called it a victory for religious freedom.
“We are grateful for this historic victory for the First Amendment,” Michael Carvin, lead counsel for The American Legion said. “This decision simply affirms the historical understanding of the First Amendment that allows government to acknowledge the value and importance of religion.”
Local county and state officials rejoiced at the decision, calling the memorial a landmark of the state. Gov. Larry Hogan, who submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the state with Attorney General Brian Frosh to the Supreme Court in support of keeping the monument, called the decision “a great victory” in a statement.
“We are pleased with today’s Supreme Court ruling that the Bladensburg World War I Memorial, also known as the Peace Cross, will be able to remain in place,” said County Executive Angela Alsobrooks. “This monument is not only a memorial for the sacrifices made by our military members in World War I, but is also a symbol to honor our veterans and all those who have given their lives in service to our county, state and nation.”
Following the decision, the American Humanist Association, who sued for the removal of the memorial, said that the decision will reinforce their efforts to “bolster the First Amendment.”
The organization also stated that the opinion given by the Supreme Court failed to honor the sacrifice of Jewish soldiers that were “intentionally unrecognized” on the memorial.
“Our legislative efforts will be redoubled as the American Humanist Association works to strengthen the wall of separation between church and state, brick by brick,” Executive Director Roy Speckhardt said. “And in the interim, our legal team will do what it can to narrow the breadth of this decision in courtrooms across the country.”
Since mid-November, the 93-year-old memorial has had a tarp around the top of the cross for maintenance as it has need repairs for some time. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) Spokesperson Anika Jackson said at the time that the tarp was placed to “prevent weather damage.” The agency, who was also part of the lawsuit, has been in charge of its upkeep since 1960.
“The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is extremely gratified that our legal battle to protect the community’s interest in this historic symbol prevailed,” Elizabeth M. Hewlett, chair of M-NCPPC and the Prince George’s County Planning Board said. “This is a big win for our community and this nation.”