Law School Case Brief
Am. Legion v. Am. Humanist Ass'n - Nos. 17-1717, 18-18, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 4182 (June 20, 2019)
The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent. For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark. For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment. For all these reasons, the Cross does not offend the Constitution.
In 1918, residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland, formed a committee for the purpose of erecting a memorial for the county’s soldiers who fell in World War I. The committee decided that the memorial should be a cross, which was not surprising since the plain Latin cross had become a central symbol of the war. The image of row after row of plain white crosses marking the overseas graves of soldiers was emblazoned on the minds of Americans at home. The memorial would stand at the terminus of another World War I memorial—the National Defense Highway connecting Washington to Annapolis. When the committee ran out of funds, the local American Legion took over the project, completing the memorial in 1925. The 32-foot tall Latin cross displays the American Legion’s emblem at its center and sits on a large pedestal bearing, inter alia, a bronze plaque that lists the names of the 49 county soldiers who had fallen in the war. At the dedication ceremony, a Catholic priest offered an invocation and a Baptist pastor offered a benediction. The Bladensburg Cross (Cross) has since been the site of patriotic events honoring veterans on, e.g., Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day. Monuments honoring the veterans of other conflicts have been added in a park near the Cross. As the area around the Cross developed, the monument came to be at the center of a busy intersection. In 1961, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (Commission) acquired the Cross and the land where it sits, but the American Legion reserved the right to continue using the site for ceremonies. The Commission has used public funds to maintain the monument ever since.
In 2014, the American Humanist Association (AHA) and others filed suit in District Court, alleging that the Cross’s presence on public land and the Commission’s maintenance of the memorial violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The American Legion intervened to defend the Cross. The District Court granted summary judgment for the Commission and the American Legion, concluding that the Cross satisfies both the test announced in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602, 91 S. Ct. 2105, 29 L. Ed. 2d 745, and the analysis applied by Justice Breyer in upholding a Ten Commandments monument in Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U. S. 677, 125 S. Ct. 2854, 162 L. Ed. 2d 607. The Fourth Circuit reversed.
Did the Bladensburg Peace Cross violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
The Bladensburg Peace Cross did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because, although the cross was a preeminent Christian symbol, its use in the Bladensburg memorial had a special significance in commemorating World War I. Due in large part to the image of the simple wooden crosses that originally marked the graves of American soldiers killed in the war, the cross became a symbol of their sacrifice. For many of the people who viewed the monument as a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home, a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices, or as a historical landmark, destroying or defacing the Peace Cross that had stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.
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