March 2019 Church & State Magazine - March 2019

AU And Religious Groups File Brief In Case Challenging Government-Owned Maryland Cross

  Rob Boston

Americans United in late January filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of several religious and civil rights groups, arguing that state officials in Maryland have no right to own and display a 40-foot cross on public property.

Americans United and its allies assert in the brief that the Latin cross in Bladensburg, which has been described as an official memorial to all veterans and fallen soldiers, excludes non-Christians.

Fourteen religious and civil-rights organizations joined Americans United on the brief. The groups urged the Supreme Court to affirm that this religious symbol on public property, maintained with taxpayer dollars, is unconstitutional.  

“Our service members made the ultimate sacrifice to our nation. Our government must treat them equally and honor them equally,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “The cross is an inherently Christian symbol. And this cross towering over a community allegedly to commemorate all veterans excludes and dishonors the sacrifices made by thousands of non-Christian veterans. We must remain true to the fundamental principles of our country that these men and women fought and died for – our Constitution. We cannot allow our government to favor one religion over another, especially when it comes to honoring our veterans.”

Americans United led the organizations in filing the brief in the case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, which challenges the constitutionality of the large cross located on public land on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. (See “Church-State Separation At The Crossroads,” January 2019 Church & State.)

The nearly century-old cross was originally created as a World War I memorial, and was rededicated as a memorial for all veterans in 1985. It is owned and maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a bi-county agency empowered by the state to administer regional parks in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

“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.

“What is more, many people today who see the Bladensburg Cross will simply have no idea that it was a war memorial … ,” the brief continues. “But they certainly understand it to be government-sponsored. … To many – including the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, nonbelievers, and others who live in Maryland – this prominent official display does precisely what the counties here deny: It communicates a strong message of preference for Christians and exclusion and second-class status for non-Christians.”

Organizations joining Americans United on the brief include the American Civil Liberties Union; ACLU of Maryland; Anti-Defamation League; Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America Inc.; Hindu American Foundation; Interfaith Alliance; Jewish Social Policy Action Network; Men of Reform Judaism; National Council of Jewish Women; People For the American Way Foundation; Reconstructing Judaism; Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; Union for Reform Judaism; and Women of Reform Judaism.

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