Peace Cross case headed to Supreme Court

Washington D.C., Nov 5, 2018 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The Supreme Court will once again consider the legality of religious monuments on public land during the current session.

The Court announced November 2 that it had granted certiorari to Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association.

The case concerns the so-called “Peace Cross” in Prince George’s County, Maryland, erected in honor of soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. In 2014, the American Humanist Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes “secular humanist” beliefs, filed suit against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission because of the shape of the monument.

The monument was erected in 1925, and was paid for by mothers of soldiers killed in the war. It lists the names of 49 members of the local community who died in service, as well as the seal of the American Legion and the words “valor,” “endurance,” “courage,” and “devotion” on the four branches.

The American Legion regularly hosts secular, patriotic events around the monument, and there has not been any sort of religious ceremony involving the cross in 87 years.

The American Humanist Association, along with a few local residents who joined the suit, argue that the cross-monument is an endorsement of Christianity on public land, and thus a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from establishing a state religion or giving preference to one religious belief over another.  

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has performed regular maintenance around the monument since 1961, as it is located on a median in the middle of a public road. This, the American Humanist Association has argued, is entangling government unnecessarily with religion.

The American Humanist Association had also sued the American Legion regarding the cross, but the cases were consolidated into one when they were granted certiorari.

The lawsuit was originally brought in 2014 and rejected by the District Court, which held that it was “uncontroverted” that the maintenance and display of the memorial was not “driven by a religious purpose whatsoever.”

In 2017, after the District Court initially rejected the case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the monument was, in fact, unconstitutional. This ruling was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The upcoming decision would impact not only the “Peace Cross,” but also other religious-themed monuments on public land, including Arlington National Cemetery. Currently, the law is unclear as to what exactly constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when it concerns religious-themed monuments.

The last time the Supreme Court was presented with controversy over a religious monument on public grounds was in 2005, when they ruled that a 10 Commandments monument at the Texas State Capitol did not violate the Establishment Clause. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the plurality opinion.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that while the 10 Commandments certainly has a religious connection, the context and location of that specific monument played a role in its constitutionality. These factors, as well as the fact that in its 40-year history no one had complained about it until the plaintiff brought suit, it was part of the “broader moral and historical message reflective of a cultural heritage” on display at the Capitol.

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