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40-Foot “Bladensburg Cross” Gets Reprieve From U.S. Supremes

June 21, 2019 | by Matheu Nunn


On June 20, 2019, in American Legion v. American Humanist Assn., the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 vote that a 40-foot-tall cross, which has stood along a public highway in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., will remain standing. The cross, which local organizations erected to honor 49 local soldiers killed in World War I, rose to fame (or infamy depending on your view) when a group of local residents filed a 2012 lawsuit in federal court in which they argued that the cross violates the United States Constitution’s “establishment clause.”For context, the   Establishment   Clause   of   the   First   Amendment   provides  that  “Congress  shall  make  no  law  respecting  an  establishment of religion.”  As noted by Justice Alito in the Court’s decision, “[w]hile the concept of a formally established  church  is  straightforward,  pinning  down  the  meaning of a ‘law respecting an establishment of religion’ has  proved  to  be  a  vexing  problem.” Over the years, the Court has faced cases regarding Bible reading in public schools, Engel v.  Vitale,  370  U. S.  421  (1962);  “Sunday  closing”  laws,  McGowan v.  Maryland,  366  U. S.  420   (1961); and state subsidies for church-related schools or the parents of students attending those schools, Board of Ed. of Central School Dist. No. 1 v. Allen, 392 U. S. 236 (1968). To be sure, there are many others. And, after a series of published decisions on this score, in 1971, the Court established a three-part test to decide these cases, Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S.  602 (1971). No, this is not how “Lemon laws” came into existence. Under  the  Lemon  test, a court must examine whether a challenged government action respecting religion: (i) has a  secular  purpose;  (ii)  has  a  “principal  or  primary  effect”  that  “neither  advances  nor  inhibits  religion”;  and  (iii) does not  foster  “an  excessive  government  entanglement  with  religion.” It is fair to say that the Lemon Court rightly endeavored to create a workable, one-size-fits-all approach to Establishment Clause cases.

A Federal District Court judge ruled in favor of the “Cross”, relying on the Lemon test, as well as Justice Breyer’s analysis in Van  Orden  v. Perry, 545 U. S. 677 (2005) (the Ten Commandments case); the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the Cross is the “preeminent symbol of Christianity.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Justice Alito opined (along with 5 concurring opinions), that the Cross did not violate the establishment clause. Justice Ginsburg dissented (joined by Justice Sotomayor). Justice Alito held that although the Court “ambitiously attempted” to create a framework for all Establishment Clause cases, over the years, the Court has taken a more “modest” approach decided on a case-by-case basis. He noted that: “[w]here  categories  of  monuments,  symbols,  and  practices  with  a  longstanding  history  follow  in  that  tradition, they are likewise constitutional.” Applying those principles, the Court concluded that the “Bladensburg  Cross  does  not  violate  the  Establishment  Clause.” The Court reached that conclusion because: (i) the Cross commemorates World War I; (ii) through the passage of time it has acquired historical importance – it has become a part of the community; and (iii) it commemorates the deaths of particular individuals. In conclusion, Justice Alito wrote: “The  cross  is  undoubtedly  a  Christian  symbol,  but  that  fact   should   not   blind   us   to   everything   else   that   the   Bladensburg Cross has come to represent.  For some, that monument  is  a  symbolic  resting  place  for  ancestors  who  never  returned  home.    For  others,  it  is  a  place  for  the  community  to  gather  and  honor  all  veterans  and  their  sacrifices for our Nation.  For others still, it is a historical landmark.  For many of these people, destroying or defacing  the  Cross  that  has  stood  undisturbed  for  nearly  a  century would  not  be  neutral  and  would  not  further  the  ideals  of  respect  and  tolerance  embodied  in  the  First  Amendment. For  all  these  reasons,  the  Cross  does  not  offend the Constitution.”

Justice Ginsburg, in dissent, highlighted that “[i]n cases challenging the government’s display of a religious symbol, the Court has tested fidelity to the principle of neutrality by asking whether the display has the effect of ‘endorsing’ religion.” Citing to prior Supreme Court jurisprudence, she added that a display  fails  this  requirement  “if  it  objectively  ‘convey[s] a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.’” Referring to Cross (the Latin Cross) as the “defining symbol” of Christianity and “not emblematic of any other faith,” Justice Ginsburg concluded that “[t]he principal symbol of Christianity around the world should not loom over public thoroughfares, suggesting official recognition of that religion’s paramountcy.”

You can read the decision in its entirety here:

You can read about the decision here:

For a different view, here:

And, for yet another viewpoint here:


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