Bladensburg, Maryland, Mayor Takisha James recalled when she heard the Supreme Court arguments earlier this year regarding whether a 40-foot World War I memorial can remain on public land — a yearslong dispute finally settled Thursday, June 20 when the court ruled the monument can stay.
“I can’t tell you how relieved the community is,” James said. “When I think about it, I am still in shock. This was quite an ordeal.”
The court ruled 7-2 that the memorial, known as the Peace Cross, doesn’t violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and that allowing a monument with religious meaning on public grounds doesn’t violate the Constitution on the separation between church and state.
The landmark structure, located on a grassy median at the intersection of Annapolis Road and Baltimore Avenue, honors 49 veterans from Prince George’s County. Similar memorials are built nearby to honor veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
County Councilwoman Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) of Cheverly said work can now begin to refurbish the granite structure built in 1925.
“What was going to happen to the Peace Cross has been nagging at us for quite a long time and it is such a relief to have it behind us,” she said. “It needs some repairs. We will find a way to get it done.”
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in 2012 when some residents and the American Humanist Association of Northwest, a group that includes atheists and agnostics, argued the cross should be moved to private property or changed to a nonreligious symbol.
The U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the association in 2015, agreeing that the cross violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization based in Orlando, Florida, filed an appeal to the Supreme Court on behalf of the American Legion and Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission.
The American Legion, residents and businesses helped pay to build the memorial. The commission, a bi-county agency that preserves and upkeeps parks and other land in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, has maintained the Peace Cross site since 1961.
The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision Thursday, June 20. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who wrote the majority opinion, said the Peace Cross and other such memorials are foremost symbols of American soldiers’ service.
“It reminds the people of Bladensburg and surrounding areas of the deeds of their predecessors and of the sacrifices they made in a war fought in the name of democracy,” Alito wrote. “As long as it is retained in its original place and form, it speaks as well of the community that erected the monument nearly a century ago and has maintained it ever since. The memorial represents what the relatives, friends, and neighbors of the fallen soldiers felt at the time and how they chose to express their sentiments.”
The other justices who ruled in favor are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas.
Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote they would’ve thrown out the lawsuit by the cross challengers. Gorsuch said people have the right to take offense to anything, but shouldn’t always be able to take legal action.
“In a large and diverse country, offense can be easily found,” Gorsuch wrote. “Really, most every governmental action probably offends somebody.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, with Ginsburgh contending that keeping the Peace Cross on public land “elevates Christianity over other faiths and religion over nonreligion.”
“Soldiers of all faiths are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross,” she wrote. “To non-Christians … the state’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”
The Humanist Association agreed.
“In the face of [the court decision], we must all pursue new avenues to bolster the First Amendment,” association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt said in a statement. “Our legislative efforts will be redoubled as the American Humanist Association works to strengthen the wall of separation between church state, brick by brick. In the interim, our legal team will do what it can to narrow the breadth of this decision in courtrooms across the country.”