The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supreme Court will take case on constitutional challenge to Maryland’s Peace Cross

The "Peace Cross," the focus of an intense court case regarding its upkeep and placement on public land, stands at a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Md. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether a 40-foot cross in the median of a busy suburban Maryland highway is a secular memorial to those who died during World War I or an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The Peace Cross, made of granite and cement, was built in 1925 as a tribute to local men who died during World War I. It was paid for by local families, businesses and the American Legion. But the giant cross sits on a piece of land that has been owned since 1961 by a state commission that pays for its maintenance and upkeep.

The challenge to the 93-year-old cross began with the American Humanist Association, a nonprofit atheist organization that has filed similar lawsuits throughout the country. In September, the group won a similar case in which it sought the removal of a 34-foot-tall cross displayed in a city-owned park in Florida.

The high court has sent mixed messages when it comes to public displays of religion, allowing some monuments with religious content to stand while rejecting others.

In Maryland, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow ruled in 2015 that the cross could remain, calling it a historically significant and secular war memorial.

Judge: War memorial cross not a government endorsement of religion

She said there is no indication that the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s maintenance of the cross “is driven by a religious purpose,” adding “the evidence of the commission’s secular purpose is uncontroverted.”

But a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond disagreed, finding the cross on public land an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The appeals court ordered the commission to remove, relocate or redesign the memorial.

Even though there are nonreligious elements in the monument, “the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones,” wrote Judge Stephanie D. Thacker.

“The cross is by far the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection,” she wrote.

Cross-shaped monument on public land is unconstitutional, court says

In March, the full appeals court refused to revisit the case in another closely divided decision. One judge has suggested the case could be resolved by stripping the arms from the cross, turning it into something that more resembled an obelisk.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) in addition to more than 100 members of Congress, told the high court that the monument should stand. Supporters, including organizations supporting religious liberty, say the 4th Circuit ruling threatens other memorials with religious features, including at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I thank the Supreme Court for taking action on this tribute to our veterans in Bladensburg,” Hogan tweeted Friday night. “We look forward to this issue finally being laid to rest and the Peace Cross standing tall for generations to come.”

The cross stands at Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 and is sometimes called the “Bladensburg Cross.”

The state commission has hired former solicitor general, Neal Katyal, and the American Legion is represented by First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom organization.

Michael Carvin, lead counsel for the American Legion, Jones Day partner and First Liberty network attorney, said, “For nearly 100 years the memorial has stood to honor these 49 sons of Prince George’s County who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.”

He added: “The Supreme Court should not allow their memory to be bulldozed.”

The American Humanist Association is represented by Monica Miller. “The 4th Circuit’s decision correctly recognized the government’s prominent Christian cross memorial unconstitutionally favors Christian veterans to the exclusion of all others,” she said.

Among the 49 men whose names are listed on the Peace Cross are farmers from southern Maryland, a medical school professor from Georgetown University and a Medal of Honor recipient who was the president of the Marine Corps baseball team. The men were killed in action, mostly in France in the final months of the war, which ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Many others were affected by the flu pandemic and died during training in the U.S.