Update: Told to Tear it Down: Supreme Court Takes on Controversial WWI Memorial Case

Bladensburg Peace Cross, located at west entrance to city on MD 450. Photo: Ken Firestone / Flickr / CC-BY-SA 2.0

On Friday, November 2, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case to decide the fate of a 40-foot cross that sits in the median of a Bladensburg, Maryland highway. The cross was built in 1925 as a memorial to several local men who gave their lives during World War I.

The Supreme Court will decide whether the Peace Cross is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion or not. The granite and cement monument was erected in the 1920’s and paid for by local families and businesses, along with the American Legion.

The 49 men honored by the memorial came from different backgrounds including farmers, a medical professor, and a Medal of Honor Marine. These men were mostly killed in action in France, but a few died from flu while still in training in the States.

American Army field hospital inside ruins of church. France. 1918
American Army field hospital inside ruins of church. France. 1918

In 1961, however, the land the cross is erected on was bought by a state commission which now pays for its upkeep and maintenance. The nonprofit atheist organization American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit protesting the 93-year-old cross being supported by government funds.

The American Humanist Association has routinely filed similar lawsuits throughout the United States in recent years, including one recently won against a Florida park in September in which they sought the removal of a 34-foot cross.

Judges in the past have sent mixed messages in similar cases, sometimes allowing the crosses to remain and other times having them removed. Perhaps this case will put an end to the indecision once and for all and settle this issue for future cases.

A World War I memorial located in the three-way junction in Bladensburg, Maryland.Photo: Ben Jacobson CC BY-SA 3.0
A World War I memorial located in the three-way junction in Bladensburg, Maryland.Photo: Ben Jacobson CC BY-SA 3.0

Maryland’s US District Judge, Deborah K. Chasanow, called the cross historically significant and a secular war memorial, allowing it to stay in 2015. Judge Chasanow found no indication that any religious purpose motivated the maintenance and upkeep paid for by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

A three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals in the 4th Circuit out of Richmond, however, disagrees with Judge Chasanow’s findings. They decided that a cross on public land is an endorsement of religion, and, therefore, is unconstitutional. They have ordered the cross to either be removed, relocated, or to be redesigned so that it is no longer in violation.

One of the judges on the panel, Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, indicated that although there are nonreligious elements to the memorial, the religious symbols outweigh them.

A bus ad put up by the American Humanist Association. Photo: Kvonnegut CC BY-SA 3.0
A bus ad put up by the American Humanist Association. Photo: Kvonnegut CC BY-SA 3.0

Another judge suggested that the arms be removed, and it be turned into an obelisk. Earlier this year, the full appeals court decided not to look at the case again.

However, Governor Larry Hogan (R) and several others, including Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and several members of Congress, have asked the court to let the monument remain. Some people are worried that the ruling made by the 4th Circuit could threaten other memorials that have religious symbols. Some are even fearful for the memorials at Arlington National Cemetery.

Canadian Cross of Sacrifice in Section 46 of Arlington National Cemetery.In 1925, MacKenzie King, PM of Canada, proposed that Canada donate memorial to the cemetery to honor the large number of Americans who died while in the service of the Canadian Armed Forces during WWI. Photo: Tim1965 CC BY-SA 3.0
Canadian Cross of Sacrifice in Section 46 of Arlington National Cemetery.In 1925, MacKenzie King, PM of Canada, proposed that Canada donate memorial to the cemetery to honor the large number of Americans who died while in the service of the Canadian Armed Forces during WWI. Photo: Tim1965 CC BY-SA 3.0

The state commission has hired Neal Katyal to represent its interest in the lawsuit. The American Legion has hired First Liberty Institute attorney Michael Carvin to represent them in the upcoming suit. Carvin believes the Supreme Court should honor the men of Prince George County and let their memorial continue to stand.

Read another story from us: Did You Know WWI Dragged On Even After Armistice Signed?

However, Monica Miller, representing the interests of the American Humanist Association, believes the 4th Circuit made an appropriate decision, and the monument should be removed. She thinks the court recognized that the government wrongfully favored Christian veterans over other veterans.

No matter which side wins, this case should set the standard for similar cases in the future.