Court finds cross memorial constitutional

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Source: The Baltimore Sun

Federal court in Maryland has ruled that a cross-shaped war memorial in Prince George’s County is constitutional, after an organization argued the structure’s presence on public land is a violation of the First Amendment.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled Monday that even though the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, a 40-foot-tall monument erected in 1925, takes the shape of a cross, its purpose is not primarily religious. Therefore, the court found, it does not violate the First Amendment’s provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Known locally as the Peace Cross, the structure that stands at the intersection of Route 450 and Alternate U.S. 1 neither depicts nor mentions Jesus.

The ruling was a victory for the co-defendants in the case, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the government entity that owns and controls the land on which the cross stands, and the American Legion, which erected it 90 years ago and continues to use the site for Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations.

It marked a setback for the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based group that describes its mission as bringing about “a progressive society where being ‘good without a god’ is an accepted way of life” and strengthening secular influence in government.

“We’re obviously disappointed with the ruling,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel for the association, which served as lead plaintiff.

“We’re still reviewing and evaluating the decision and our options,” she said, including the possibility of taking the case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In her opinion, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow wrote that the monument’s original intent was not primarily religious in nature, and it has been used almost exclusively for the nonreligious purpose of celebrating federal holidays.

At the time the memorial was built, she added, unadorned crosses were widely assumed to symbolize those who were killed in World War I, as they did in numerous European cemeteries.

Those and other factors satisfy the guidelines courts have generally used since the early 1970s in deciding cases related to the so-called establishment clause, Chasanow wrote.

“There is overwhelming evidence in the record showing that the predominant purpose of the Monument was for secular commemoration,” the opinion read.

Roger Byron, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute, the Plano, Texas-based law firm representing the American Legion in the case, said he was encouraged by a ruling that “faithfully applies the law [and] helps assure both the courts and other government entities that might [want to] use religious texts or imagery that these are lawful under the First Amendment.”

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