The Supreme Court late Friday afternoon agreed to hear a case involving a huge Christian cross displayed, owned and maintained by the state of Maryland – the first case involving religious freedom that the court has agreed to hear this term.
It should be a no-brainer that the 40-foot-tall cross that towers over an intersection in Bladensburg, Md., violates church-state separation – it’s an unavoidable symbol of Christianity located on government-owned property. Pretty much all that residents and visitors see is a huge cross as they enter the city.
The cross sends a message that Bladensburg is a Christian town – which isn’t a very welcoming message to non-Christians. Publicly owned spaces should be inclusive and welcoming to people of all religions and the nonreligious; people should not be made to feel like they’re second-class and excluded because they don’t practice a particular faith.
Though the cross was erected as a war memorial, a cross is an exclusively Christian symbol. Using a cross as a war memorial honors only Christian soldiers, while telling veterans and survivors who hold other beliefs that they are not valued equally.
In response to the 2014 federal lawsuit filed by AU ally the American Humanist Association (AHA), the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year agreed that the cross on public land showed clear government endorsement of Christianity: “One simply cannot ignore the fact that for thousands of years the Latin cross has represented Christianity. Even in the memorial context, a Latin cross serves not simply as a generic symbol of death, but rather a Christian symbol of the death of Jesus Christ.”
The appeals court concluded that the cross overshadowed all secular monuments in the area. The court also noted the lack of symbols representing any other religions: “Christianity is singularly – and overwhelmingly – represented.”
AHA also noted that the cross is in “dangerous disrepair”: The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission already has spent more than $100,000 on cross maintenance and has earmarked $100,000 more, which AHA said still may be futile. AHA pointed to government records referring to the cross as a “safety hazard” and a “public eyesore,” and an email from a commission official who wrote, “repairs to the structure have not proven sustainable or helpful in the long term.”
In its filing in the Supreme Court, AHA noted over 30 federal cases in which crosses on public land have been deemed unconstitutional. But proponents of the cross are expected to ask the Supreme Court, including newly seated Justice Brett Kavanaugh – who has a hostile record on church-state separation – to overturn precedents that support the 4th Circuit’s decision.
Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser urged the Supreme Court to affirm the 4th Circuit’s ruling: “Our Constitution protects the religious freedom of all Americans – religious and nonreligious alike – by ensuring that government does not endorse a particular faith or favor religion over nonreligion. This immense Christian cross on public land clearly shows government promoting one religion – Christianity – above all others.
“We respect the state’s wish to honor veterans and agree with the appeals court that this worthy goal can be accomplished in ways that don’t promote a particular religion and that respect the religious diversity of Maryland’s citizens, including veterans,” Laser continued. “We urge the Supreme Court to affirm that this cross is unconstitutional.”
The Supreme Court has not yet scheduled arguments in the case, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association. The arguments and a decision are expected by the end of June 2019.
(Photo: The Bladensburg, Md., cross at the heart of the dispute, as seen in court documents.)