A federal court in Maryland has ruled that a cross-shaped war memorial in Prince George's County is constitutional, after an organization argued the structure's presence on public land is a violation of the First Amendment.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled Monday that even though the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, a 40-foot-tall monument erected in 1925, takes the shape of a cross, its purpose is not primarily religious. Therefore, the court found, it does not violate the First Amendment's provision that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
Known locally as the Peace Cross, the structure that stands at the intersection of Route 450 and Alternate U.S. 1 neither depicts nor mentions Jesus.
The ruling was a victory for the co-defendants in the case, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the government entity that owns and controls the land on which the cross stands, and the American Legion, which erected it 90 years ago and continues to use the site for Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations.
It marked a setback for the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based group that describes its mission as bringing about "a progressive society where being 'good without a god' is an accepted way of life" and strengthening secular influence in government.
"We're obviously disappointed with the ruling," said Monica Miller, senior counsel for the association, which served as lead plaintiff.
"We're still reviewing and evaluating the decision and our options," she said, including the possibility of taking the case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In her opinion, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow wrote that the monument's original intent was not primarily religious in nature, and it has been used almost exclusively for the nonreligious purpose of celebrating federal holidays.
At the time the memorial was built, she added, unadorned crosses were widely assumed to symbolize those who were killed in World War I, as they did in numerous European cemeteries.
Those and other factors satisfy the guidelines courts have generally used since the early 1970s in deciding cases related to the so-called establishment clause, Chasanow wrote.
"There is overwhelming evidence in the record showing that the predominant purpose of the Monument was for secular commemoration," the opinion read.
Roger Byron, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute, the Plano, Texas-based law firm representing the American Legion in the case, said he was encouraged by a ruling that "faithfully applies the law [and] helps assure both the courts and other government entities that might [want to] use religious texts or imagery that these are lawful under the First Amendment."
Byron said the plaintiffs had "tried to establish as a primary argument" that the presence of a cross on public lands is a violation of the Constitution.
Byron disagreed, arguing that inclusion of a symbol that can be construed as religious in an otherwise secular installation is not necessarily unconstitutional.
The attorney added that there has been "a surge of attacks" by atheist, agnostic and humanist organizations on veterans' memorials in recent months.
He cited the cases of a 29-foot war memorial cross on public land in San Diego that was the subject of litigation for 25 years and of a makeshift war memorial in Knoxville, Iowa, that became the subject of a legal dispute this year.
The Liberty Institute defended the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, which sought to overturn a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California that the cross in San Diego was unconstitutional, and is now defending Al Larsen, the 67-year-old military veteran who built the Iowa memorial — a plywood structure — in honor of a friend who was killed in action in Vietnam.
The San Diego matter was settled in July when the U.S. government sold the property to the Mount Soledad Association.
The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the Knoxville City Council in August demanding the removal of the memorial, which depicts a soldier bowing at a cross-shaped grave marker. The Knoxville council voted in November to have the plywood war memorial removed, but Byron said the Liberty Institute is still pursuing the case.
The Bladensburg case was filed after Fred Edwords, a Prince George's resident and former executive director of the American Humanist Association, noticed the monument and wondered whether it was legal.
"I thought, 'Well, that's odd. What's that doing there?'" he told a Baltimore Sun reporter last year. "That certainly gives the impression of government endorsement of religion … I just wondered how that kind of thing had continued."
Edwords and two other individuals joined the humanist association in filing suit in U.S. district court in Greenbelt, and attorneys for the park and planning commission and American Legion filed court papers disputing the plaintiffs' claims.
The case drew national attention, pitting atheists and agnostics on one side against Christians and veterans on the other.
Just as happened in the San Diego and Iowa cases, a movement arose to defend the Bladensburg cross.
A Facebook group attracted more than 3,300 members from around the country, and supporters gathered more than 7,000 signatures for an online petition.