The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about whether the nearly 100-year-old, cross-shaped war memorial in Maryland known as Peace Cross violates the Constitution's required separation of church and state.
The case of the monument, located in the Bladensburg community of Prince George’s County, could impact hundreds of similar monuments nationwide.
A federal appeals court in Virginia had previously ruled against the cross, which stands about 40 feet tall. The judges said that it “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion.”
But the Maryland officials who maintain the memorial told the Supreme Court that the monument's context and history show it is intended to convey a secular message of remembrance, not a religious message.
They said the appeals court's decision would “compel the removal or dismemberment of a cherished war memorial that has served as a site of solemn commemoration and civic unity for nearly a century.”
In urging the high court to take the case, officials argued that the lower court's decision puts at risk hundreds of other monuments nationwide.
Over the summer the state of Maryland filed an amicus brief in support of the petition to the Supreme Court, and Gov. Larry Hogan said the state was “determined to fight all the way to the highest court in the land to keep it standing tall and proud.”
Peace Cross was completed in 1925, and it honors 49 men from the surrounding county who died in World War I. A plaque on the cross' base lists the names of those soldiers, and both faces of the cross have a circle with the symbol of the American Legion, the veterans organization that helped raise money to build it.
Today, responsibility for the cross falls to a Maryland parks commission that took over ownership and maintenance of it in 1961 because of traffic safety concerns. The massive concrete structure could be dangerous to motorists if it were to fall or crumble.
Supporters of the monument say the Supreme Court has previously made clear that monuments, particularly longstanding ones that incorporate religious symbolism to send a secular message, don't violate the Constitution. They say the Bladensburg monument's history and context show that it falls into that category, that its message is a secular one of commemoration.
The monument's shape was chosen not for religious reasons but to mirror cross-shaped grave markers used for soldiers buried in American cemeteries overseas, backers note. And, in the decades since the monument was built, other memorials have been constructed nearby — including a World War II memorial, a memorial honoring veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars and a 9/11 memorial.
The District of Columbia-based American Humanist Association has led the challenge against the monument. The organization and three area residents sued Maryland officials in 2014.
They say that the cross “discriminates against patriotic soldiers who are not Christian, sending a callous message to non-Christians that Christians are worthy of veneration while they may as well be forgotten.” And they point out that other nearby memorials are smaller and across the street from the cross.
While a trial court judge ruled the memorial was constitutional, the appeals court disagreed in a 2-1 ruling in October 2017.
In urging the Supreme Court not to take the case, the American Humanist Association argued that the appeals court's ruling is specific to the Bladensburg memorial and doesn't threaten any other monuments.
The court agreed Friday to hear the case, and arguments are expected this winter.
Associated Press reporter Mark Sherman contributed to this report.