A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a memorial erected in 1925 to honor 49 local heroes that had made the ultimate sacrifice during World War I must now be torn down.
The Fourth Circuit Appeals Court’s major disagreement with the Bladensburg, Maryland WWI Veterans Memorial seemed to be that it was a cross and … really tall?
“The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity,” the court wrote in its opinion. “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 decision reverses a 2015 ruling that found that the intention of the memorial was not primarily religious. Instead, the monument is used mainly to celebrate veteran-related federal holidays.
“Today’s decision sets dangerous precedent by completely ignoring history, and it threatens removal and destruction of veterans memorials across America,” First Liberty Institute attorney Hiram Sasser said.
The American Humanist Association, a militant anti-religion organization, filed the suit and relishes the victory over the veterans’ statue and the American Legion who defended it.
“Government war memorials should respect all veterans, not just those from one religious group,” said Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt.
But, if the American Legion does not appeal, no memorial will honor anyone from WWI and it could have implications on memorials like the grave markers at Arlington National Cemetary.
“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 defense claimed that crosses are common on headstones of America’s heroes including the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice that stands near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In response, the court ruled that size does matter.
“The crosses there are much smaller than the 40-foot tall monolith at issue here,” the court wrote.
In his dissent, Chief Judge Roger Gregory argued that the Constitution, not size, should not have been a determining factor in the case.
“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.”
The First Liberty Institute and the Jones Day law firm are representing the American Legion in the fight to preserve the monument.
“This memorial has stood in honor of local veterans for almost 100 years and is lawful under the First Amendment,” Jones Day attorney Michael Carvin said. “To remove it would be a tremendous dishonor to the local men who gave their lives during The Great War.”
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns and maintains the monument, said that they have no intention to take it down at this time.
“For now,” the commission’s General Counsel Adrian Garner 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 commission, American Legion, and Jones Day have not yet announced whether they will appeal to the Supreme Court.