Supreme Court Permits Cross on Public Land In Separation of Religion and Government Case

On June 20, 2019, the Supreme Court issued a decision in American Legion et al. v. American Humanist Association. The case considers whether a large marble cross located on public land and maintained using public funds violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Interfaith Alliance immediately condemned the decision, which allows the 40-foot monument to remain at the center of a public intersection, paid for by local taxpayers. Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, expressed grave concern that the Court would now be in the business of determining what constitutes a religious symbol:

“While today’s Supreme Court ruling in American Legion et al. v. American Humanist Association may have been the outcome many expected, the decision to allow the Bladensburg cross to remain on public land endangers religious freedom. 

“Under Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court has slowly been chipping away at the separation between religion and government in this country, allowing the religious beliefs of some more weight than others. This case in particular, no matter how narrowly decided or how justices tried to parse old and new memorials, places the Supreme Court in the business of determining what constitutes a religious symbol and justifies the use of public money and land for private beliefs. 

“We should be wary of assigning meaning to symbols based on modern history. While the cross did become a common symbol of the First World War, for centuries before that it held a specific religious meaning — a meaning it continues to hold for many here in the United States. The Bladensburg Cross is neither truly representative of the diverse personal faith, philosophy or conscience of the local service members for whom it was built to honor, nor do we see this ruling as honoring the powerful meaning of the Latin cross for devoted Christians. Religious symbols do not belong on public lands, paid for by the public.”

View our press release.

About the Case

A 40-foot-tall Latin cross made of marble and cement stands at the center of one of the busiest intersections in Bladensburg, Maryland. The “Peace Cross” was built in 1925 as a tribute to local men who perished during World War I. Originally paid for by local families, businesses, and the American Legion, the cross sits on a piece of land that has been owned by a state commission that pays for its maintenance and upkeep since 1961.

Steven C. Lowe lived in the Bladensburg area for years before he learned the cross was a war memorial. He felt the cross implied the city favored Christianity over other faiths or no faith at all. Lowe joined two other area residents and the American Humanist Association in challenging the cross. Photo via Religion News Services.

The American Humanist Association filed a complaint against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in February 2014, challenging the constitutionality of an overtly religious symbol owned, maintained, and funded by a government entity. The AHA won a similar case in Florida in 2018, alleging that a large cross in a Pensacola city park violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately held that the Bladensburg cross unconstitutionally endorses Christianity and fosters excessive government entanglement with religion. In June 2018, the American Legion and the Commission petitioned the Supreme Court to consider the case. In November, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the Bladensburg cross display violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Oral arguments in American Legion et al. v. American Humanist Association took place on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. Learn more:

Interfaith Alliance and Allies Rally to #HonorThemAll

Interfaith Alliance and partners held a rally to support veterans of all faiths and none on the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, February 27, 2019.

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, appeared as a featured speaker. He said, in part,

“We at Interfaith Alliance are proud to stand with any individual or group of individuals whose faith commitments have been abused or arrogated by the government.  That’s why I am here today to speak in support of my Christian brothers and sisters who find such deep religious meaning in the Latin cross.  It is for them the pre-eminent symbol of the defining religious principle in their lives.  No doubt, when the originators of the Bladensburg Cross chose that symbol to honor the young men who paid the ultimate price for the defense of freedom, they had in mind power of their own faith to heal the broken-hearted and to give meaning to the sacrifice.

But now this privately-funded, privately-erected profound religious symbol rests on public land and is maintained by public funds.  And the only way that is possible is for the courts – THIS court – to declare that because of its long-standing presence it may be considered less than a marker of Christian faith.”

Read Rabbi Moline’s full remarks.

Amici Curiae (Friends of the Court)

Amicus briefs are filed by groups that are not directly involved in a case but have a strong interest in the subject matter. The briefs advise the court of relevant, additional information or arguments that the court might wish to consider.

Interfaith Alliance Calls for Memorials that Honor All Veterans, Without Privileging One Faith Over Others

Interfaith Alliance joined a wide array of religious and civil rights organizations in challenging the constitutionality of government sponsorship of religious symbols. Together, we assert that the Bladensburg cross is an unambiguously Christian symbol that does not honor all veterans, as it disregards the diverse traditions and beliefs of those who served and died for our country. The brief states:

“America’s fallen soldiers and the sacrifices that they and their families have made are all worthy of remembrance and recognition. Rather than commemorate only Christian soldiers through a misguided use of the cross, government ought to acknowledge the equal worth, equal dignity, and equal sacrifice of all who gave their lives in service to our Nation.

“What is more, many people today who see the Bladensburg Cross will simply have no idea that it was a war memorial….But they certainly understand it to be government-sponsored. … To many — including the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, nonbelievers, and others who live in Maryland — this prominent official display does precisely what the counties here deny: It communicates a strong message of preference for Christians and exclusion and second-class status for non-Christians.”

The brief was written by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. In addition to Interfaith Alliance, they are joined by the American Civil Liberties Union; ACLU of Maryland; Anti-Defamation League; Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America Inc.; Hindu American Foundation; Jewish Social Policy Action Network; Men of Reform Judaism; National Council of Jewish Women; People For the American Way Foundation; Reconstructing Judaism; Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; Union for Reform Judaism; and Women of Reform Judaism.

Read People for the American Way’s summary of the brief.

The Baptist Joint Committee Demonstrates the Objectively Religious Symbolism of the Latin Cross

Interfaith Alliance partner, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, submitted an amicus brief asserting that the Bladensburg Cross is unconstitutional and urging the Court not to open the door to new displays of a similar nature even if this particular cross is found lawful. They write:

Petitioners would… reduce the cross from the most fundamental and most sacred Christian symbol to the least of religious symbols. . . .Over and over, petitioners describe the cross as merely a memorial in “the shape of a cross,” and similar circumlocutions, as though shape in this case were some incidental characteristic of little importance.

There is no ambiguity about the primary, predominant, and objective meaning of a Latin cross. The cross is the central symbol of Christianity, invoking the central theological claim of Christianity…The aggressive rationalizations of petitioners’ version of the reasonable observer cannot change this obvious and dominant meaning.”

The brief was written by noted First Amendment scholar Douglas Laycock and the BJC. They are joined by the American Jewish Committee, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, General Synod of the United Church of Christ, and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Hear BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler and General Counsel Holly Hollman discuss the case and the BJC’s amicus brief.