WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a 40-foot, cross-shaped war memorial that has stood on public land in Maryland for nearly a century is unconstitutional because it "excessively entangles" the government with religion.
A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., found that the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial — known locally as the Peace Cross — "aggrandizes the Latin cross" to the point that an observer would conclude the government entity that owns it is endorsing Christianity.
"The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity," the court wrote in a 33-page opinion that included photographs of the memorial. "And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George's County, Maryland, and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds."
The 2-1 ruling reverses a 2015 district court decision that found the purpose of the cross is not primarily religious and that the site has been used almost exclusively for celebrating federal holidays.
Erected in 1925, the cross honors 49 Prince George's County residents who died in World War I. The structure stands at the intersection of Route 450 and Alternate U.S. 1 on a rectangular base inscribed with the words "valor," "endurance," "courage" and "devotion."
"Government war memorials should respect all veterans, not just those from one religious group," Roy Speckhardt, the group's executive director, said in a statement.
The decision was a setback for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns the site and has spent $117,000 to maintain and repair it, and the American Legion. The commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties, was created by the Maryland General Assembly in 1927.
Adrian R. Gardner, the commission's general counsel, said the agency is considering an appeal.
"For now," Gardner said in a statement, "the disposition of the case is still pending, and the commission has no immediate plan to make any changes relating to the memorial."
The American Legion is represented in the case by the First Liberty Institute, a Texas group that says its mission is "to defend and restore religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military, and throughout the public arena."
Jeremy Dys, an attorney for the institute, said the group is reviewing the decision and considering an appeal.
"I think it's very discouraging for the thousands of veterans across the country who have basically been told their war memorials are suspect if any religious imagery appears near them," Dys said. "I think it's important that we honor veterans the way that veterans choose to honor themselves."
The opinion was written by Judge Stephanie D. Thacker and joined by Judge James A. Wynn Jr.
Supporters of the memorial have raised the impact an adverse decision could have on other sites — notably, Arlington National Cemetery. Crosses are common on headstones and elsewhere at the cemetery. A 24-foot granite cross, the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice, is positioned near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Maryland Policy & Politics Newsletter
Keep up to date with Maryland politics, elections and important decisions made by federal, state and local government officials.
The court dismissed the notion that the two sites are related.
"The crosses there are much smaller than the 40-foot tall monolith at issue here," the court wrote. "And, significantly, Arlington National Cemetery displays diverse religious symbols, both as monuments and on individual headstones."
Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory, writing in dissent, questioned the legal significance of the cross's size.
"In the majority's view, the memorial is unconstitutional based predominantly on the size of the cross, and neither its secular features nor history could overcome the presumption," Gregory wrote. "But such a conclusion is contrary to our constitutional directive."