BLADENSBURG, Md. — A federal court has ruled that a memorial cross that sits on public land is constitutional, despite objections from a prominent humanist organization.
The Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, also known as the “peace cross,” was erected in 1925 by the American Legion to honor the lives of 49 men from Prince George County who died during the war.
The cross stands 40 feet tall in Memorial Park, and also features a plaque that reads, “The right is more precious than the peace; we shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts; to such a task we dedicate ourselves.” The site is mainly used by the American Legion for Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations.
Last year, the American Humanist Association (AHA) sued the the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission over the presence of the cross, alleging that it violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
“When the government erects an exclusively Christian monument on government property, it violates this central command of the Establishment Clause by sending a clear message that Christianity is the preferred religion over all others,” said AHA attorney Monica Miller in a statement surrounding the filing of the suit.
The group pointed to wording in a fundraising pledge sheet for the monument that was distributed in nearly a century ago to further its point.
“We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the supreme ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers,” it read.
But on Monday, U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasanow ruled that the monument is constitutional because it is used for nonreligious purposes and is meant to honor war vets rather than promote any religious message.
“Even if these statements or events carry some religious meaning, they do not show an ‘entirely religious purpose’ for the monument, and, in fact, there is overwhelming evidence in the record showing that the predominant purpose of the monument was for secular commemoration,” Chasanow wrote. “The monument’s groundbreaking was a predominantly secular affair that also included the groundbreaking of the National Defense Highway…”
“The Monument’s secular commemorative purpose is reinforced by the plaque, the American Legion’s seal, and the words ‘valor,’ ‘endurance,’ ‘courage,’ and ‘devotion’ written on it. None of these features contains any religious reference,” she continued. “[The construction of the cross] was not an attempt to set the imprimatur of the state on a particular creed. Rather, those who erected the cross intended simply to honor our nation’s fallen soldiers.”
The Texas-based Liberty Institute, which represented the defendants in the case, applauded the decision.
“This victory sets an important precedent,” president Kelly Shackelford said in a statement. “It not only affirms the Bladensburg Memorial will remain in its place of honor but helps ensure that all the nation’s veterans memorials, and the veterans they honor, will be protected.”
AHA says that it is considering an appeal to the Fourth Circuit.