THE PEACE CROSS, a towering, rose-hued monument that has stood on a state-owned median strip a mile east of the District for nearly a century, is becoming the focal point of a jurisprudential war over what constitutes governmental endorsement of religion. The case in fact presents a close call: The cross is an irrefutably sectarian symbol that does incontestable double duty as a secular memorial to 49 men from Prince George’s County who died in World War I, their names inscribed on a bronze tablet at the statue’s base, along with a quotation from President Woodrow Wilson.
In a 2-to-1 ruling, a federal appeals court last month ruled that the Peace Cross, overlooking a busy interchange in Bladensburg, is unconstitutional. "The sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones," the court said, parting ways with a lower court judge who, in 2015, called the cross a historically important war memorial and declined to order it removed. The Supreme Court, for its part, has tied itself into knots wrestling over similarly ambiguous memorials and monuments. In 2005, it disallowed Ten Commandments displays in two Kentucky courthouses and, on the very same day, upheld a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas statehouse grounds.
In the instance of the Peace Cross, however, the balance of precedent and circumstance argues for leaving the memorial in place. In a strikingly similar case, in 2010, the court, divided along ideological grounds then as now, let stand an eight-foot cross on a high outcropping of federal land in California's Mojave National Preserve, also to honor America's fallen soldiers in World War I. "Placement of the cross on Government-owned land was not an attempt to set the imprimatur of the state on a particular creed," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the plurality of the court. "Rather, those who erected the cross intended simply to honor our Nation's fallen soldiers." He added that "the goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of a particular religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm."
Mr. Kennedy’s standard is a reasonable one, though it must be exercised with caution. In the case of the Peace Cross, it is no use denying that the monument, taken by itself and divorced from context and intent, is religious. It’s a Latin cross, a symbol as synonymous with Christianity as the Star of David is with Judaism or the crescent moon and star with Islam.
But the purpose of the American Legion and the local families who erected it in 1925 was not primarily religious. Built shortly after the Great War’s end, it was meant not as a tribute to Christianity but rather as a remembrance of sacrifice and the values remembered on the base’s four sides: valor, endurance, courage and devotion.
Granted, the cross excludes those of different faiths — notably, American Jews, several thousand of whom died in World War I. Yet having stood for 92 years, what purpose is served now by its removal? Let it stand.
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