40-Foot Cross on Public Property in Maryland Violates First Amendment

Shortly after World War I, private organizations in Prince George’s County, Maryland began building a large cross affixed with plaques and inscriptions to commemorate veterans of that county who died in the war.  The cross, which stands four stories tall, was located in the median of a highway intersection.  In 1961, citing the fact that the monument stands in the middle of a traffic median, the Maryland-National Capital Park Commission took ownership of the cross.  The Commission used and continues to use government money to maintain and repair the monument. Over the years, many sectarian as well as secular services have been held at the base of the monument.  A few years ago, the American Humanist Association (an organization with “nontheistic” views) filed a lawsuit against the Commission, arguing that the cross violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment—a church-and-state issue.

The World War I monument in Bladensburg, Maryland.  (CNS/Chaz Muth)

The AHA argued that the cross, which is exclusively a Christian symbol, has a size, location, and display which demonstrates an unmistakable governmental affiliation with Christianity.  The Commission defended the cross, arguing that the plaques and inscriptions demonstrate a secular purpose for the monument, and that crosses are often used to represent individual loss of life in war memorials rather than Christianity.

The Commission lost and the cross was held unconstitutional.  In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the secular elements of the monument were weathered, obscured, and small compared to the large size of the cross itself.  In addition, the Court found that the exclusively-Christian nature of the services held at the cross and the private organizations which sponsored it showed a clear affiliation with Christianity.  Thus, a reasonable observer would associate the monument with an endorsement of Christianity, thereby violating the Establishment Clause.

The Commission will likely be forced to auction off the land and the cross to a private party.

Case: Am. Humanist Ass’n v. Md.-Nat’l Cap. Park & Planning Comm’n, No. 15-2597 (4th Cir. Oct. 18, 2017) (opinion here)

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