Supporters of a towering cross-shaped monument at a busy intersection in Maryland asked an appeals court on Wednesday to revisit a ruling that said it was unconstitutional to have the memorial on public land.
The request for a hearing by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit follows a decision last month by a three-judge panel that said the 40-foot-tall cross maintained with taxpayer funds “excessively entangles the government in religion” in violation of the First Amendment.
“This is a case of exceptional importance that threatens memorials nationwide. We are hopeful the Fourth Circuit will recognize the significance,” said attorney Michael Carvin, who filed a petition for review Wednesday on behalf of The American Legion.
Adrian Gardner, general counsel for the state agency that owns the monument, said in a statement that the use of government funds to maintain the memorial is “lawful and consistent with our role as good stewards of local history.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is also among the monument’s defenders and called the panel’s Oct. 18 ruling “an affront to all veterans” that “should not be allowed to stand.”
The issue for the Richmond-based court was whether the memorial, known as the Peace Cross, is a secular tribute to local men who died in World War I or an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion that must be removed from public property.
The case attracted attention from several conservative members of Congress, who said the legal challenge threatened to eliminate other monuments and inscriptions with religious significance, including at Arlington National Cemetery.
After the panel’s ruling, Hogan directed the state’s attorney general to defend the monument’s location on a grassy median at the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg.
Built in 1925 with funding from local families and The American Legion, the cross honors 49 Prince George’s County men who died in the war, listing their names on a bronze tablet. On the base are the words valor, endurance, courage and devotion.
The monument sits on land owned since 1961 by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a state agency that pays for upkeep and repairs. It is part of a larger memorial park in the immediate area honoring veterans of several wars and stood without protest for decades.
The legal case was brought by the American Humanist Association, a nonprofit organization that argued the cross sends a message of exclusion and gives the impression only Christians are being honored.
A District Court judge in 2015 disagreed, ruling the ownership and upkeep by a state agency was “driven by a secular purpose, maintaining and displaying a ‘historically significant war memorial’ that has honored fallen soldiers for almost a century.”
The 2-to-1 ruling from the 4th Circuit reversed that decision in part because of the height of the monument.
“The cross is by far the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection,” wrote Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, who was joined by Judge James A. Wynn Jr.
More than 2,000 people have signed an online petition submitted to the state agency in support of maintaining the monument, calling it a “landmark that has become synonymous with the historic town of Bladensburg.”
The petition says: “Don’t let The American Humanist Association take this HISTORICAL piece of history away!”
The request for review by the full 4th Circuit was filed by the nonprofit First Liberty Institute representing The American Legion. A separate appeal for rehearing was also filed late Wednesday by the park and planning commission.
If the 4th Circuit opts not to hear the case, the future of the Peace Cross could end up at the Supreme Court.
The high court has not provided clear guidance when it comes to religious displays on government land, allowing some monuments with religious content to stand, while ordering the removal of others. The cases have turned on particular facts, such as the size, setting and history of the display.