Now the monument, which sits on state property, is the subject of a fight itself. The American Humanist Association, a Washington-based group that represents atheists and others, is calling for the cross’s removal, arguing that a religious image on public land violates the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.
“There are no words on it that say ‘war memorial,’ ” said Fred Edwords, who brought the cross to the attention of the humanist organization. “It stands out there . . . like a very strong religious symbol.”
Bill Burgess, the association’s legal coordinator, said the cross is a Christian image, one that “does not represent the sacrifices made by non-Christian soldiers.”
But veterans and some community groups have vowed to fight to keep it as is, arguing that it was built on what was then private property at a time when military memorials were often overtly religious.
The controversy over the monument is the latest in a series of battles across the country over the meaning of the First Amendment’s guarantee that government will not endorse or impede the practice of religion.
When the Supreme Court decided a similar case in 2010, the justices narrowly rejected a complaint that a white cross in the Mojave Desert, honoring World War I soldiers, violated the First Amendment’s ban on endorsing one religion over any other. The majority said that the cross could be viewed as a more neutral symbol that honors heroes. A recent settlement allows a land swap that will put the property in private hands, where the First Amendment’s prohibitions would not apply.
Within the past year, the high court refused to review two other cases, letting stand lower-court rulings invalidating crosses anchored on public land in Utah and California. In the California case, involving a San Diego cross in a public park honoring veterans, a judge suggested that while the cross is illegal, there may be ways to modify the setting, similar to the Mojave Desert land swap.
Locally, the issue has come up in Loudoun County, where a creche outside the courthouse in 2011 was joined by nontraditional displays, including a skeleton Santa Claus mounted on a cross (which was twice ripped down) and atheist testimonials, such as “I can be moral without religion.”
Barry Lynn, a minister who heads Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said disputes over religious symbols in public spaces show no sign of abating.
“This happens a lot all over the country,” Lynn said. In the past few weeks, his organization helped negotiate removal of religious symbols with officials in Dugger, Ind., where a large cross with the words “Jesus Saves” was on publicly owned land, and in King, N.C., where a flag adorned with a cross was flying in a public park where veterans are honored.