It is hard to miss the 40-foot-tall, marble-and-cement cross that towers over the busy intersection of two state roads in one of Maryland’s largest counties. The question for a federal court next month is whether the landmark is a memorial to local men lost in war or a government endorsement of religion that should be removed from public land.
The legal challenge to the Peace Cross in Prince George’s County is one of a number of recent cases throughout the country involving public displays of religion. The Maryland situation has attracted attention from several conservative members of Congress, who say the case threatens to eliminate other monuments, images and inscriptions with religious significance, including at Arlington National Cemetery.
One federal judge already declined to order the removal of the Bladensburg cross, finding last year that it is a historically significant, secular war memorial.
At issue for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit next month is whether the monument violates the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from favoring certain faiths over others.
Built in 1925 with money raised by local families and the American Legion, the pink-hued cross honors the 49 Prince George’s County men who died in World War I. On the base are the words valor, endurance, courage and devotion. A bronze tablet lists the names of the men and includes a quote from President Woodrow Wilson.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a state agency, owns the land and monument, and pays for upkeep and repairs, according to court filings.
Supporters say the monument is commemorative, not religious, and is part of a larger memorial park in the immediate area honoring veterans of several wars. An American flag flies next to the cross, and the cross stood unchallenged for nearly 90 years, serving as a gathering place for events marking Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
“The memorial’s message is one of commemoration for the men of Prince George’s County lost in WWI, not an endorsement of religion,” according to a brief filed by the commission and the American Legion to the Richmond-based court.
The American Humanist Association, a Washington-based group that represents atheists and others, does not dispute that the monument is a memorial. But, the group says, a giant cross on government property “magnifies, rather than mitigates, its stigmatizing religious message: Christians are worth venerating while the rest may be forgotten.”
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said the prominence and placement of the Bladensburg cross “crosses the line.”
“Even in the context of a war memorial, the government has no business honoring only the service members of only one faith,” he said.
The Supreme Court has not drawn bright lines when it comes to religious displays on government land. The court has allowed some monuments with religious content to stand. The cases have turned on particular facts, such as the size, setting and history of the display.
On one day in 2005, for instance, the high court sent mixed messages: It gave its blessing to a 6-foot-tall monument of the Ten Commandments on the Texas State Capitol grounds in part because of its setting in a 22-acre area that contained more than a dozen other monuments. Yet the court found framed copies of the Ten Commandments installed in two Kentucky courthouses unconstitutional.
In a long-running case in California, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found unconstitutional a 29-foot-tall cross atop Mount Soledad near San Diego. Congress had tried to protect the cross by declaring Mount Soledad a national monument. The Supreme Court has declined to get involved.
Eight conservative members of Congress, including Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), say in court filings that the lawsuit challenging the Bladensburg cross could lead to the destruction of other cherished markers, such as two large cross-shaped monuments at Arlington Cemetery.
Mach of the ACLU said the cemetery monuments are not an issue because they are surrounded by many nonreligious markers and “do not come close to dominating the landscape.”
About 60,000 cars pass daily through the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, where the cross sits in a central, grassy median. Nearby, there are a half-dozen smaller memorials, including tributes to those killed at Pearl Harbor and in Vietnam. Across the street is a tree-lined walkway dedicated to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The cross-shape of the monument, according to supporters, is a historical symbol intended to evoke the small crosses that marked the graves of American soldiers who died in World War I and were buried overseas.
To Jason Torpy, an Army captain who served in Iraq and a supporter of the lawsuit, religious markers on government land that are cast as veterans’ memorials make atheists like him and other non-Christians feel like “second-class citizens whose service doesn’t matter.”
Torpy, who lived in the Washington area for five years until 2015 and now is in Indiana and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said it is “disrespectful and dishonest for someone to say a 40-foot cross is not a symbol of Christianity.”