Federal Court Rules WWI Monument in Shape of Cross Is Unconstitutional

In remembrance of those who never came home from the war to end all wars, the veterans and citizens of Prince George’s County, Maryland, erected a towering cross in their honor.

Since 1925, the cross has stood at what is now the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, Maryland.

A federal appeals court now says it has to go.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said the 40-foot-tall cross “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion,” according to The Washington Post.

Although the initial funds to erect the memorial came from donations, the cross is maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which is a state agency.

The court did not care that the cross is part of a larger collection of memorials in the vicinity, saying that “the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones.”

“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 in her opinion by Judge James A. Wynn, Jr.

“The district court determined that such government action does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause because the cross has a secular purpose,” they wrote.

The judges stated blatantly that the monument still does endorse religion, despite the lower court’s reasoning.

The judges also described the cross, writing, “one side of the base contains a two-foot tall, nine-foot wide plaque listing the names of the 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County whom the Cross memorializes, followed by a quote by President Woodrow Wilson.”

“The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity. And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland; and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds,” the pair said.

“Therefore, we hold that the purported war memorial breaches the “wall of separation between Church and State.”

They wrote that even though it might be common knowledge that the monument was erected to honor to soldiers who lost their lives in World War I, that was not enough to keep it standing where it is.

“(A) reasonable observer would know that the Cross is dedicated to 49 World War I veterans and that veteran services occur at the Cross,” they wrote. “The private organizers pledged devotion to faith in God, and that same observer knows that Christian-only religious activities have taken place at the Cross.”

The judges added that no specific party “has come forward with any evidence to the contrary,” and noted that the “Latin cross generally represents Christianity.”

“These factors collectively weigh in favor of concluding that the Cross endorses Christianity — not only above all other faiths, but also to their exclusion,” the opinion read, according to Patheos.

However, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory dissented.

“This Memorial stands in witness to the VALOR, ENDURANCE, COURAGE, and DEVOTION of the forty-nine residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland ‘who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world,’” Gregory wrote.

“I cannot agree that a monument so conceived and dedicated and that bears such witness violates the letter or spirit of the very Constitution these heroes died to defend,” he said, as reported by Fox News.

Those defending the memorial lashed out at the decision.

“Today’s decision sets dangerous precedent by completely ignoring history, and it threatens removal and destruction of veterans memorials across America,” said Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel for First Liberty, which helped represent the American Legion in the case.

“This memorial has stood in honor of local veterans for almost 100 years and is lawful under the First Amendment,” said Michael Carvin, lead counsel for The American Legion and partner at the Jones Day law firm. “To remove it would be a tremendous dishonor to the local men who gave their lives during The Great War.”

The American Humanist Association had originally brought the case to court, claiming that the cross violated the First Amendment.

A U.S. District Court judge turned down its request to have the cross taken down, giving rise to the appeal.

“The American Legion’s commitment to preserving the Bladensburg Memorial has been unwavering,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty.

Shackelford also cited the determination illustrated by former President Woodrow Wilson, whose words are engraved at the memorial’s base: “The right is more precious than the peace; we shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest to our hearts; to such a task we dedicate ourselves.”

“We are exploring all of our options on behalf of the American Legion,” she added, “including an appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.” (For more from the author of “Federal Court Rules WWI Monument in Shape of Cross Is Unconstitutional” please click HERE)

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