The Bladensburg Peace Cross

The Bladensburg Cross is a WWI memorial located in Bladensburg, MD, a mere few miles from the Arlington National Cemetery. It was erected, on private land, between 1919 and 1925 using private donations. The project had been spearheaded by Gold Star mothers who lost their sons to battle and lists the names of 49 men from Prince George’s County who died during the war.

The cross was originally built on private lands, but, in 1961, via the law of Eminent Domain, the lands were turned over to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Since that time, the Commission has overseen maintenance of the memorial. The land has been heavily developed over the years, with a divided highway passing by it and the memorial on its median (see attached photo if you wish).

On 27 February 2019, this memorial cross was the subject of a court case that was heard in front of the United States Supreme Court. At issue were the merits of “The Establishment Clause”, that this cross is a violation of the separation of church and state (a Thomas Jefferson metaphor).

In 2014, after 90 years of this cross being on the same site, three area residents (THREE) and the American Humanist Association filed suit, saying in court papers the memorial sends a “callous message to non-Christians.” The filers won the lawsuit, which was immediately appealed to the Fourth Circuit of Appeals, who, in October 2017, agreed and ordered the memorial be torn down, moved or modified. One of the appeals court judges stated that “they should just cut off the arms of the cross, that would take care of the issue”.  They wrote that publicly funded maintenance of the cross was unconstitutional because it “excessively entangles the government in religion because the cross is the core symbol of Christianity and breaches the wall separating church and state.” We should be reminded that “the wall” is never mentioned in the constitution nor the 1st Amendment. Nevertheless, the court remanded the issue of what will happen to the cross to the district court.

On November 2, 2018, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, which was heard on February 27, 2019. “Look at the historical context here. History counts,” Justice Stephen Breyer said. “But no more. We are a different country now, and there are 50 more different religions.” “Does the cross really have a dual meaning?” Ruth Ginsburg asked. “It is the preeminent symbol of Christianity. People wear crosses to show their devotion to the Christian faith.” “It’s sectarian,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said of the Peace Cross, and also questioned whether its long history is enough to allow it to remain.

“I think the Constitution tilts toward liberty in its structure,” added Kavanaugh, suggesting this particular cross memorial should stay, but the antagonists in the lawsuit claim that the memorial does not pass the “Lemon Test” – which is the basis of their oral argument. But Gorsuch said that precedent has not been applied in recent years by the justices.   
What is the Lemon Test?  In 1971, the Supreme Court heard the case of Lemon v Kurtzman (403 US 602). In the case, the Court decided that a Rhode Island law that paid some of the salary of some parochial school teachers was unconstitutional. One of the outcomes of this case is the Lemon Test, which created three criteria for determining if an issue at law is within the boundaries allowed by “The Establishment Clause”.
  1. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;
  2. Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;
  3. Finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

While it may be a few months before we hear of an official ruling, the justices of the supreme court will likely vote in favor of The Bladensburg Cross; however, they are also indicating that they will avoid a broad ruling that would provide clear markers for similar legal disputes in the future. They will, instead, continue to hear each case on a case-by-case basis.

So, what are the ramifications of this case as it relates to our religious and constitutional liberties?

  • Similar crosses are displayed on federal land to honor war dead at nearby Arlington National Cemetery. Those that support tearing down all Christian themed memorials are indicating that they will also go after the Arlington National Cemetery. This case can set a precedent that may allow them to win.
  • There are over a hundred memorials around the United States that are similar in scope to the Bladensburg Cross that are also at risk.
  • It is very likely that from this day forward, new war memorials with religious imagery will no longer be permissible in the United States – given the diversity of faiths, and the views of atheists or agnostics.

I am not sure how many of you care about this, or, perhaps you feel helpless to do anything about it so, while you may be interested, you are frustrated but yet remain silent. There are things that you can do, but with God’s grace and Spirit filled wisdom, I believe and have faith, that even we, the so-called little people, can effect positive outcomes. May the Lord’s blessings make it so.

He frustrates the devices of the crafty, So that their hands cannot carry out their plans – Job 5:12