The Supreme Court turned back a constitutional challenge to a cross-shaped war memorial in Maryland Thursday, finding that the monument does not violate the First Amendment.
Justice Samuel Alito delivered the opinion for a seven-justice majority.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Peace Cross impermissibly endorses Christianity. The so-called “reasonable observer” test provides that government displays which are perceived to endorse or disparage a particular religion violate the First Amendment.
“One simply cannot ignore the fact that for thousands of years the Latin cross has represented Christianity,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for the majority. “Even in the memorial context, a Latin cross serves not simply as a generic symbol of death, but rather a Christian symbol of the death of Jesus Christ.”
In a subsequent dissent, Judge Paul Niemeyer, who warned the decision imperils similar monuments within the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction, including those at Arlington National Cemetery.
The case arose in 2014, when three Maryland residents sued the parks commission with the support of the American Humanist Association (AHA). The plaintiffs say that the Peace Cross violates the First Amendment’s ban on religious favoritism.
The American Legion intervened in the case given its historical connection to the monument. The Legion originally erected the memorial after World War I, but ceded control of the site to a Maryland state parks commission in 1961. Veterans groups still host annual programs at the Peace Cross.
The parks commission and the Legion separately defended the memorial throughout the litigation. The commission urged the courts to rule on narrow grounds, saying the monument does not draw and explicit connection to Christianity — rather it evokes European battle cemeteries, where crosses are regularly used as headstones. What’s more, the Cross itself features other secular symbols like the seal of the Legion, and it situated among other battle memorials.
All told, the history, context, and features of the memorial dilute whatever religious content Peace Cross might have, the commission says.
But the Legion took a bolder position, saying the courts should permit sectarian displays like the Peace Cross provided they do not proselytize or coerce onlookers into religious observance.
49 names are inscribed on the pedestal of Peace Cross, including Medal of Honor winner Henry Hulbert.
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