American Legion v. American Humanist Association

Last modified 2018.11.01

  • Status Closed
  • Type Amicus
  • Court U.S. Supreme Court
  • Issues Religious Displays, Religious Minorities

In 1918, a group of Maryland residents raised money to build on city-owned land a 40-foot-tall cross as a monument to 49 soldiers from their local area who were killed in World War I. The following decades saw the cross used as a site for memorial and worship services, often involving Christian—and only Christian—prayer. A bi-county commission acquired title to the cross and the land beneath it in the 1960s, rededicated the cross to all veterans of all wars, and spent or earmarked more than two hundred thousand dollars to maintain the cross.

In 2014, local non-Christian residents and the American Humanist Association sued the bi-county commission to end the counties’ unconstitutional promotion of Christianity. The district court granted summary judgment to the government, holding that the cross served secular purposes and did not advance Christianity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment on appeal. It held instead that the cross’s religious meaning predominated over any secondary secular meanings and that a reasonable observer would understand the counties to be impermissibly promoting or endorsing Christianity.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted review in November 2018. Americans United submitted an amicus brief on behalf of religious and civil-rights organizations to the Court. The brief explained that a prominent official display of a powerful religious symbol necessarily sends an exclusionary and divisive message to the community.

In June 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the display of the cross. The Court opined that the cross had taken on significant secular meaning as a war memorial and local landmark over its long life and that maintaining the cross did not rise to the level of an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

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