The Supreme Court seems likely to allow a 40-foot cross honoring fallen World War I soldiers to remain on public property in Maryland.
According to the New York Times, the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial was commissioned by the American Legion and built with private money in 1925. It was deeded to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1961 and has since cost the state $117,000 in maintenance and repairs.
The cross stood in the Maryland suburb for nearly 100 years without conflict until 2012, when local residents sued, arguing that the government was endorsing Christianity by displaying the cross on public ground and maintaining it with taxpayer money. Additionally, they felt the cross discriminated against veterans and soldiers who are not Christian.
They lost their case when a district court upheld the cross; however, judges on the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision, citing excessive government entanglement.
In court, the plaintiff argued that the cross should be moved to private property or modified to no longer resemble a cross.
Proponents of the memorial, including the American Legion and the state, argued that taking it down or removing the arms would be disrespectful to veterans. Others also worried about the implications of the case for similar memorials around the country.
Emma James, junior Biblical and Theological Studies major, agreed that the cross should not be modified. “I don’t feel like the monument should be changed because I think it was intentionally chosen and representative of something that mattered to that generation, and it isn’t necessarily ours to secularize,” James said.
The Supreme Court heard the case earlier this year and suggested that the cross does not violate the separation of church and state. However, they have yet to reach a decision that lower courts could apply to other cases of religious symbols on public land.
Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Stephen Breyer noted that crosses were in common use during WWI to honor the dead, giving them historical significance as opposed to solely religious significance. Because of this, they argued that the memorial has been stripped of any significant religious content.
Katie Hughes, junior history major, agreed that the cross can be seen as a historical symbol.
“The argument about [the cross] historically being a symbol makes sense,” she said. “The cross was almost synonymous with democracy at that point in a lot of senses, with the Allies, democracy, and this idea of morality in WWI.”
Marcos Wilson, sophomore political science major, also agreed that the cross has historical value. He believes that Christian symbols inevitably show up in public life due to their significance in the history of the United States. “The first colony in the U.S. came here because they sought religious freedom, and they were Christians. So, a very foundational part of the history of the country is Christianity,” he said. “So, in a lot of the ways, the sign of the cross doesn’t have only religious significance. It’s a historical symbol.”
However, Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed that religious symbols being erected on public property would not be acceptable today, due to shifts in the attitudes and practice of religion in the U.S.
Hughes said that because of these changing cultural shifts, consistency is especially important when dealing with the separation of church and state. “If it was an Islamic symbol, people would say, ‘Oh no, shut that down,’” she said. “Right now, we’re a very Christianized nation, but if the time comes where that’s not true … I think that’s going to be a point of contention in the future. So, it’s a good idea to be consistent.”
Wilson agreed that consistency is important, especially because the Supreme Court’s decision could impact religious symbols beyond the cross in question. “If we’re going to follow that logic, we should change the money too since it says, ‘In God We Trust,’ and there are a lot of other things we should change. It’s something that is deeply ingrained in the culture,” he said.
When it came to decide on a test that could measure a memorial or symbol’s religious significance, the judges were not able to agree on a specific rationale. However, the Supreme Court’s eventual decision on the case could impact similar memorials all over the country and alter the role of religion in public life.
James said that, while the Supreme Court may change the way that church and state interact in the future, we can’t undo the religious history of the nation. “Going forward we are empowered to handle religious symbols as we see fit, but I don’t think we have the authority to remove them from our country’s past.”