A federal judge declined Monday to order the removal from public property of a 40-foot, cross-shaped war memorial in Bladensburg, asserting that the monument is “secular” and that a government agency has nonreligious reasons for maintaining it.
In a 36-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow ruled unequivocally against the American Humanist Association’s bid to have the monument torn down or modified on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment ban on the government’s establishment of religion.
Chasanow wrote that the monument — which stands at Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 and is sometimes called the “Bladensburg Cross” or “Peace Cross” — is “not a governmental endorsement of religion,” although she conceded that the Latin cross “is undeniably a religious symbol.”
“The Monument and Veterans Memorial Park are secular war memorials that host numerous commemorative events,” Chasanow wrote. She added that the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s ownership and upkeep of the cross was “driven by a secular purpose, maintaining and displaying a ‘historically significant war memorial’ that has honored fallen soldiers for almost a century.”
The controversy over the memorial dates back some years, when the American Humanist Association, which advocates for civil liberties and civil governance, called for the Park and Planning Commission to remove the cross. The group later filed a lawsuit seeking the same result. Monica Miller, senior counsel at the American Humanist Association, said she was “disappointed” with the judge’s decision and was considering whether to appeal.
“There’s a lot of veterans that the cross doesn’t represent, and not just veterans but citizens,” Miller said. “This isn’t a private memorial. This is a government-sponsored one.”
In her ruling, Chasanow noted that the monument sits on a base that bears a plaque listing the names of 49 men from Prince George’s County who died in World War I and that the “vast majority” of events held at the site were observances of Memorial Day or Veterans Day. She also noted that after the case was filed, the National Park Service placed the monument on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Nothing in the record indicates that the Commission’s maintenance and display of the Monument is driven by a religious purpose whatsoever,” Chasanow wrote. “The evidence of the Commission’s secular purpose is uncontroverted.”