The Supreme Court rejected a call to remove a 40-foot World War I memorial cross in Bladensburg, Maryland.
Three Maryland residents sued the parks commission in 2014 with the support of the American Humanist Association (AHA), claiming the Peace Cross as it’s called violates the First Amendment’s ban on religious favoritism.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Peace Cross impermissibly endorses Christianity. The so-called “reasonable observer” test provides that government displays that are perceived to endorse or disparage a particular religion violate the First Amendment.
Writing for the majority in that opinioin, Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote:
“One simply cannot ignore the fact that for thousands of years the Latin cross has represented Christianity.”
“Even in the memorial context, a Latin cross serves not simply as a generic symbol of death, but rather a Christian symbol of the death of Jesus Christ.”
But the Supreme Court was having none of that. In a 7-2 decision, with just Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissenting, they rebuffed the challenge.
For the majority, Justice Alito wrote:
“After the First World War, the picture of row after row of plain white crosses marking the overseas graves of soldiers who had lost their lives in that horrible conflict was emblazoned on the minds of Americans at home, and the adoption of the cross as the Bladensburg memorial must be viewed in that historical context.”
“It has become a prominent community landmark, and its removal or radical alteration at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of ‘a hostility toward religion.”
The decision questions the validity of a prior decision, Lemon v. Kurtzman, which included a complicated, three-part test of constitutionality. While the justices shied away from overturning the Lemon precedent, they gave those who want to protect historical monuments a path.