Government-Supported Religion

What’s At Stake In The Bladensburg Cross Case

  Rob Boston

The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear oral arguments in a case challenging government ownership and display of a 40-foot-tall Latin cross in Bladensburg, Md.

The cross was erected 100 years ago as a memorial to Maryland residents who died during World War I. In 1985, it was rededicated to memorialize all veterans of that war.

I’ve seen some news stories that have referred to this structure as a “cross-shaped” memorial. Let’s be clear about what we’re dealing with here: It is a giant cross. Anyone looking at it would recognize that right away. And that’s the problem: A cross can’t memorialize non-Christians. As the central symbol of the Christian faith, a cross is an appropriate way to remember Christians who have died. It does not memorialize Jews, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans and so on.

This would seem to be an obvious point, but some people just don’t get it. Over the weekend, syndicated columnist George Will pontificated on the cross. From his lofty perch of privilege, Will, who, ironically, has described himself as a “low-voltage atheist,” dismissed concerns that the cross excludes many veterans and blamed the case on “a few cranky, persnickety, hair­splitting secularists.”

Writing for The National Review, Thomas Ascik brings up an old chestnut that often surfaces in disputes like this: If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.

“They can freely drive past the monument,” Ascik asserts. “They have never been prohibited from using the public land and park for personal or religious purposes. They have not alleged that they have ever been denied a request to have their own religious event or ritual at the park.”

I’m not sure if Ascik has actually visited the site of the cross. I have. It towers over a busy intersection and is impossible to miss. You’d have to drive miles out of your way to avoid it. The area it occupies isn’t so much a park as it is a traffic island. And while people may be free to host other rituals there, I think we all know there’s no way the government would allow the erection of a competing monument next to the cross – say, a 40-foot-tall paean to atheism.

Aside from being dismissive of the rights of religious minorities, Will and Ascik also share the hope that the high court will use this case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, to rewrite church-state law across the board. They want the court to toss out decades of precedent and issue a ruling that will open the door to a much closer relationship between religion and government.

This enormous cross, to some people, is little more than a battering ram to assail the church-state wall. If they have their way, the court will issue a broad ruling that could go way beyond the display of Christian symbols by government and would also affect things like the role of religion in public education and taxpayer support for religion.

Americans United is working to prevent that from happening. Last month, we filed a legal brief with the high court on behalf of 14 religious and civil rights organizations, urging the court to rule that displaying this religious symbol on public property and maintaining it with taxpayer dollars is unconstitutional.  

“America’s fallen soldiers and the sacrifices that they and their families have made are all worthy of remembrance and recognition,” the brief states. “Rather than commemorate only Christian soldiers through a misguided use of the cross, government ought to acknowledge the equal worth, equal dignity, and equal sacrifice of all who gave their lives in service to our Nation.”

Some veterans are also speaking out, making the point that members of the armed forces defend our freedoms, one of which is religious freedom. Allowing the government to endorse and promote the majority faith is a clear violation of that principle.

Several Americans United staff members will be at the court on Wednesday morning, and AU President and CEO Rachel Laser will speak at the #HonorThemAll rally outside the court starting at 8:30. (If you live in the D.C. area, please join us.) And check out our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts on Wednesday for coverage of the rally.

This case is important. The attempt to use it to overturn settled church-state law is disturbing. And the core question presented is compelling: Is our nation going to endorse war memorials that exclude many of the brave men and women who laid down their lives defending our freedoms?

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