January 2019 Church & State | Featured

Washington, D.C., and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia form one of the most religiously diverse metropolitan areas in the United States. And yet the state of Maryland continues to display an enormous Christian cross just outside D.C. city limits in Bladensburg to memorialize war veterans.

In the immediate aftermath of World War I, those seeking to recognize 49 Maryland service members killed in the war weren’t thinking about religious diversity. Even though a secular WWI memorial that honored by name all of the war dead of Prince George’s County had already been dedicated in the county seat of Upper Marlboro, a fundraiser was launched for a Bladensburg war memorial to be formed in the image of the Calvary cross that was used to crucify Jesus Christ.

Bladensburg cross

(PHOTO: The Bladensburg Cross. CREDIT: Rob Boston/Church & State)

“We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the Supreme Ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers who gave their all in the world war to make the world safe for democracy,” were the words of a pledge signed by those who donated money for the cross. “With our motto, ‘One God, One Country and One Flag,’ we contribute to this memorial cross commemorating the memory of those who have not died in vain.”

Much has changed in the ensuing century. Rather than the Calvary cross, the memorial is now known as the Bladensburg Cross or the Peace Cross. Ownership of the cross has changed, though it remains in government hands. But perhaps most significantly, the religious beliefs of Washington, D.C., residents, members of the military and veterans have changed and diversified – and with those changing beliefs, a desire to honor religious diversity has grown.

That’s why the American Humanist Association (AHA) and three D.C.-area residents in 2014 filed a federal lawsuit seeking to end display of the cross. The case, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, has moved through the court system and will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the first half of 2019.

“The current Christian monolith fails to represent the pluralistic nature of religion among veterans, and among Americans,” AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt said in November after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser agreed: “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.”

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.

~ Rachel Laser, AU president & CEO

At 40 feet tall, the Bladensburg Cross towers over one of Prince George’s County’s busiest intersections where three highways converge. Located a scant mile up U.S. Route 1 from the border of Washington, D.C., the cross is the most prominent feature greeting drivers as they enter Bladensburg after crossing the Anacostia River.

Steven Lowe, a longtime D.C.-area resident who joined AHA’s lawsuit, was “shocked” the first time he saw the cross on government property. Lowe passes the cross regularly in his car while running errands or while biking on occasional jaunts to Bladensburg Waterfront Park. “Due to the size of the cross, Mr. Lowe believes it cannot be ignored or overlooked,” the lawsuit says.

Private groups, including the American Legion, raised money for the Bladensburg Cross, but it was located on land owned by the town of Bladensburg. After an ownership dispute with the state related to highway rights of way, a county court in the 1950s deemed Maryland the owner of the property and the cross. The State Roads Commission in 1960 deeded the Bladensburg Cross property to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which has owned and maintained it ever since.

Since assuming ownership, the commission has spent at least $117,000 of public money to maintain the cross, according to the AHA. But the cross is crumbling nonetheless. The commission allocated another $100,000 in 2008 for a literal facelift after determining that two worsening cracks could cause a “face” of the cross to fall off. But restoration proposals submitted two years later came in over budget. As recently as December 2018, a “cap” was tied around the top of the cross, presumably to slow further decay.

“Rather than continue to waste taxpayer dollars repairing an exclusively Christian symbol, the government should use that money to construct a new memorial atop the historic platform that will honor all war veterans,” AHA’s Speckhardt said.

Rather than continue to waste taxpayer dollars repairing an exclusively Christian symbol, the government should use that money to construct a new memorial atop the historic platform that will honor all war veterans.

~ Roy Speckhardt, AHA executive director

The Bladensburg Cross remains the only memorial in the traffic island; the closest other memorials are significantly smaller, newer and located several hundred feet away. The lack of nearby monuments is an important distinction because courts have sometimes allowed religious displays to remain on government property when they can be shown to be part of a larger array that includes secular monuments.

Three additional small memorials were erected in the general vicinity of the Bladensburg Cross from 1960 to 2006 to remember veterans of World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But the newer memorials are all at least 200 feet away, across a highway, and the tallest is 10 feet tall – a quarter of the size of the cross. The smallest is less than a foot tall.

For a passerby, there is little to indicate that the cross is intended to be a war memorial. The names of the state’s war dead are listed at the cross’s base, but are not visible to anyone driving by and are often obscured by brush (AHA has noted that the state’s landscaping efforts have improved in response to the lawsuit). And the cross isn’t accessible to pedestrians – there are no sidewalks or crosswalks to the traffic island, which is surrounded by multi-lane highways. There’s no dedicated parking area; the closest parking lot is at a pawn shop across Baltimore Avenue and Bladensburg Road.

Fred Edwords, a Prince George’s County resident who joined the lawsuit, told The Baltimore Sun: “You have to break the law and take your life in your hands in order to read the plaque on the cross. For all of this talk that it’s a war memorial and not a religious symbol, nobody really seems to care much about getting that plaque where anybody can actually access it.”

The size, location and history – as well as the lack of any visible description on the cross other than the letters “US” in a star that resembles a national seal – all combine to give the Bladensburg Cross the appearance not of a war memorial, but of government promotion of Christianity on publicly owned land.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed: In October 2017, it ruled in AHA’s favor and deemed the cross unconstitutional. “The monument here has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion,” wrote Judge Stephanie D. Thacker for the majority opinion. “The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity. And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland; and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds. Therefore, we hold that the purported war memorial breaches the ‘wall of separation between Church and State.’”

But the state of Maryland appealed, as did the American Legion, which has joined the case as an intervenor in support of the state and whose attorneys include the Religious Right legal group First Liberty Institute. The state argues that the Bladensburg Cross is a secular and historical monument more so than a religious one.

AHA countered that in addition to the Bladensburg Cross clearly being a religious symbol, it has been the site of religious services throughout its history. Christian pastors led prayers during a fundraising drive in 1922 before the cross was even erected, and its dedication in 1925 was marked by prayers led by at least two Christian pastors. Many memorial and other services at the cross ever since have included Christian prayers. The American Legion has been involved in many of those services; AHA has noted that American Legion ceremonies typically include a religious component.

AHA also cited 30 federal court cases in which government cross displays were ruled unconstitutional,   including “[e]very federal case involving the constitutionality of a gov­ernment cross monument displayed as a memorial.” One example was San Diego’s 43-foot Mt. Soledad Cross that was the subject of a more than 20-year legal battle before a private group bought the municipal land to circumvent a 2013 federal court order that the cross be removed. And last September, a federal appeals court ruled that the 34-foot Bayview Park cross in Pensacola, Fla., is unconstitutional; the city’s appeal was pending consideration by the Sup­reme Court at Church & State’s press time (Pensacola is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, another Religious Right legal group).

Although the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission rededicated the Bladensburg Cross in 1985, purportedly to honor all veterans, the commission did nothing to make the memorial more inclusive to non-Christians. AHA noted, “It is undisputed that the Bladensburg Cross does not honor non-Christian veterans. The [American] Legion admitted that this Cross was never intended to commemorate Jewish soldiers, despite substantial Jewish communities in Maryland and D.C.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2017 published a report on the religious affiliation of veterans; more than 12,000 veterans in Maryland identified as non-Christians, about half of them Jewish.

The Pew Foundation’s Religious Landscape Survey in 2014 determined that a third of the people living in the Washington, D.C., metro area were non-Christian. A quarter of the region’s residents identified themselves as religious “nones” – either nonbelievers or those who don’t associate with a particular faith. Pew noted that the D.C. region is the fifth most religiously diverse large city in the country.

The religious diversity of the D.C. metro area echoes that of the military itself, according to a 2010 Department of Defense survey of the religious beliefs and practices of military personnel. A third of the service members surveyed identified themselves as non-Christians, including a quarter who said they had no religious preference.

“In a sense, I feel that the Bladensburg Cross is a slap in the face to all of us non-Christian service members who have risked our lives to serve this country,” Jason Torpy, a U.S. Army veteran and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told AHA for the organization’s #HonorThemAll campaign.

The Bladensburg Cross is a slap in the face to all of us non-Christian service members who have risked our lives to serve this country.

~ Jason Torpy, U.S. Army veteran

“I can attest that government-sponsored war memorials that utilize religious symbolism – particularly symbols of the majority religion, seemingly blind to the existence of other groups – are inherently divisive,” Torpy wrote in The Baltimore Sun in 2017. “Government has no business bestowing honor and esteem upon one religious group to the exclusion of others. If a war memorial utilizes a Christian cross to deliver its message, then it belongs on a churchyard or other private property.”

AU’s Laser said the state should find a more inclusive way to recognize the service of all veterans, not just Christians: “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. We urge the Sup­reme Court to affirm that this cross is unconstitutional.”

At Church & State’s press time, no date had been set for oral arguments in the case, but the Supreme Court is expected to hear the case in early 2019 and issue an opinion by the end of June. This will be the first church-state separation case the Supreme Court will hear this term and the first to feature the new judicial lineup with President Donald Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh replacing longtime swing-vote Anthony Ken­nedy, who retired last summer. Kavanaugh’s hostile record on church-state separation is troubling; for instance, as a private attorney, he wrote a legal brief in a school-sponsored prayer case that claimed religious practices that “are deeply rooted in our history and tradition” should be permitted.

As Americans United Legal Director Richard Katskee wrote last month on the court-watching SCOTUSblog, Kavanaugh and the rest of the court would be wise to consider this advice from former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: “At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish. … Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”