The Establishment Clause and the Peace Cross: Adversaries or Friends?

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Thursday, March 7, 2019


Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, the most recent case in the nationwide struggle for religious liberty. The case dates back to 2014, when the American Humanist Association (A.H.A.) sued the Commission for the removal of the Bladensburg Memorial because it has a 40-foot Latin cross, which they allege is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While this case is centered around the presence of a cross in a city-owned park, its potential consequences stretch much farther than the town of Bladensburg.

The Bladensburg Memorial, locally known as the Peace Cross, was established in 1925 on private lands and funded by the American Legion, a veterans association, as a memorial for the town’s fallen veterans in World War I. In 1961, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission took ownership of the land as a historical site. For 93 years, there have been little to no complaints about the Memorial, but, in 2014, the A.H.A. sued for its removal because the cross allegedly represents an Establishment of Religion by the state. The 4th District Court ruled in favor of the Commission, arguing that the Memorial does not violate the Establishment Clause, but the 4th Circuit Court reversed and remanded the case. Last November, the Supreme Court decided to take up the case after the Commission appealed.

This case isn’t just about the presence of the cross. This case is about a recurring trend from the left that threatens the Free Exercise and social acceptability of religion in our country.

The sole question presented in the A.H.A.’s plaintiff is, “Whether the Establishment Clause requires the removal or destruction of a 93-year-old memorial to American servicemen who died in World War I solely because the memorial bears the shape of a cross?”

The A.H.A. claims that it constitutes a government establishment of religion because it is an exclusively Christian monument and therefore favors Christianity over other religions.

The use of the cross, a universally-recognized symbol of memorial for veterans, does not relate to the state of Maryland establishing a religion in even the loosest interpretation. The Memorial was erected on private lands for years before the state took ownership of it, and currently, the state only owns it for maintenance and historical purposes. If this really represents the state establishing a religion, why aren’t there lawsuits against every state that owns land with a religious symbol? Furthermore, does the presence of a cross violate the Lemon Test, as the 4th Circuit ruled?

The designation of the Memorial as a historical site has the secular purpose of honoring those who died for our country, does not advance or prohibit any individual religion, and does not even remotely represent an excessive entanglement between church and state. Therefore, this would not violate the Establishment Clause. Considering that this is the only question raised by the A.H.A., it is a weak argument for the Memorial’s removal.

If the Court upholds the 4th Circuit’s ruling, the Free Exercise of religion in public life will be vulnerable to attack. The Free Exercise of religion, that the veterans being honored in the Memorial died to defend, cannot exist if it is prohibited or discouraged in public life.

Because of the First Amendment, we can practice, or choose not to practice, our religions without fear of government infringement, and this practice includes both in our private lives and in public, like at this Memorial. If the Court rules that this cross does violate the Establishment Clause, other progressive and secular organizations like the A.H.A. will sue for the removal of religious symbols in all corners of public life— even the Arlington National Cemetery is at risk of a lawsuit under this precedent.

This is not healthy for a Republic built upon freedom of religion and undermines our founding principles as well as our history. Being merely offended by the presence of a religious symbol is far different from religious coercion by a government. This theoretical ruling would set a dangerous precedent for our nation’s judicial system and the value of our founding principles.

While a government would not exploit it to directly prohibit Free Exercise, many lower court judges would likely use it to justify removing memorials and symbols similar to the one in Bladensburg. The fate of religious liberty and Free Exercise is in the hands of the Supreme Court more than ever.

 

 

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Aidan McIntosh is a member of The Catholic University of America's Class of 2022. After Edward Snowden's revelations about the N.S.A. in 2013, he began to take an interest in politics and understand the merits of limited government and personal freedom. He has a strong passion for constitutional law, religious liberty, and foreign policy, and enjoys hiking, powerlifting, and writing about music.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Aidan McIntosh

Catholic University

Aidan McIntosh is a member of The Catholic University of America's Class of 2022. After Edward Snowden's revelations about the N.S.A. in 2013, he began to take an interest in politics and understand the merits of limited government and personal freedom. He has a strong passion for constitutional law, religious liberty, and foreign policy, and enjoys hiking, powerlifting, and writing about music.

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