February 25, 2019
Maryland Cross-Shaped World War I Memorial Case Heads To The Supreme Court

A cross-shaped World War I monument in Maryland is at the heart of a case that the Supreme Court will hear this week -- a case considered by some to be an indication of the future of the notion of the separation of church and state in the U.S.

As ABC News reports, this week the Supreme Court will consider the case of a World War I monument in Bladensburg, Maryland. The 40-foot high, 16-ton monument is shaped like a Latin Cross, and as such, opponents say that its presence essentially amounts to government sponsorship of a specific religion, which is forbidden by the First Amendment.

The monument's history

The monument, known locally as "The Bladensburg Peace Cross," was built in 1925, following devastating losses suffered by the town's young men in The Great War. Grieving mothers collected money to install the cross, which was then taken over by the American Legion for a brief time. But by the 1930s, those private organizations had run out of money, and the construction and maintenance costs were taken over by a local parks commission, according to NPR News.

Now the cross sits at a busy five-way intersection in the city, still maintained with state funds.

Government interference in religion?

That's a problem, say three anonymous Maryland residents. In 2014, they teamed up with The American Humanist Association to file suit, asking the court to force the crossed to be moved from public property and to be no longer maintained with public funds. Either that, the petitioners requested, or the cross should be modified into a less-religious shape.

That's because the monument's cruciform shape makes it an expression of, and therefore a promotion of, Christianity, the plaintiffs argue in their court brief.

"The Latin cross is not embraced by non-Christians or used by them as a symbol of death or sacrifice. Some faiths even view it as a symbol of their religious oppression. Plaintiffs have each regularly encountered the Cross as residents, and two of them cannot avoid the Cross in the course of their ordinary routines."
However, Michael Carvin, representing the American Legion, disagrees. He notes that European cemeteries are filled with crosses of the fallen from World Wars I and II, and that they are simply a "universally acknowledged symbol of World War I dead."

A newly conservative court weighs in

Since the suit's filing, two conservative justices have taken seats on the Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. And those two votes will almost certainly swing the Supreme Court's vote in favor of the monument staying exactly where it is, writes Ian Millhiser for Think Progress. Further, Millhiser suggests that this case could be the most important church-and-state case the Court has heard in decades.

"The wall of separation is about to collide with wrecking balls named 'Neil Gorsuch' and 'Brett Kavanaugh.'"
The Supreme Court's vote could have far-reaching implications for the future of such symbols and monuments, as well as for the separation of church and state in the U.S. in general, says Millhiser.

NPR News writer Nina Totenberg believes similarly. Specifically, she notes that the Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to apply the so-called "coercion test" to such cases, which is to say, does the existence of the thing -- be it a monument, a plaque, a prayer before a high school football game -- "coerce" non-believers into adhering to the religion supposedly being promoted?

It's a much-more difficult test to pass, and as such, if the Supreme Court moves in that direction, it could indeed pave the way for the continued existence of controversial, potentially religion-promoting monuments, acts, and laws, claim Totenberg and Millhiser.