Brief Fact Summary.
American Humanist Association (AHA) sued the American Legion for maintaining a cross on public grounds, using public funds. The cross was built after World War I. The AHA argued that the cross’s presence and maintenance violated the First Amendment.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
There is a presumption of constitutionality for long-standing religiously affiliated symbols that have gained secular and/or historical meaning.
Other federal, state, and local government entities generally possess authority to safeguard individual rights above and beyond the rights secured by the U. S. Constitution.View Full Point of Law
American Humanist Association (AHA), an atheist group, sued the American Legion for maintaining a cross on public grounds, using public funds. The cross, known as the Bladensburg Peace Cross, was built in 1925 in Bladensburg, Maryland as a memorial to local soldiers who died in World War I. It is in the shape of a Latin Cross. The AHA argues that the presence of the cross and its maintenance via public funds is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As remedy, the AHA requested that the cross would be relocated, demolished, or that the arms were removed.
Is the Bladensburg Peace Cross constitutional?
Yes, the Bladensburg Peace Cross is constitutional.
Justice Ginsburg (with Sotomayor)
Crosses are clearly religious symbols, and this cross clearly promotes Christianity and Christian fallen soldiers, over other religions and fallen soldiers of other religions. The remedy could be to relocate it off of public grounds or by transferring ownership of the land to a private entity.
Justice Breyer (with Kagan)
Each Establishment Clause case should have its own evaluation done, keeping in mind the basic purposes of the First Amendment with regard to religion: assuring religious liberty and tolerance, avoiding religious conflict, and maintaining the separation of church and state.
In this case, the Latin cross is associated with fallen soldiers of WWI and it does not violate the values of the First Amendment.
Emphasizing two points: 1.) There are five categories of Establishment Clause cases, and the Lemon test does not help in any of them. Religious memorials or war memorials on public land is not coercive. 2.) This decision allows Maryland to keep the cross, but it does not require it to. They can listen to their citizens, whose concerns are valid, and remove it of their own volition.
The First Amendment isn’t formally incorporated into the States, and even if it is, the cross does not violate it.
Justice Gorsuch (with Thomas)
The outcome is correct, but this case should have been dismissed for lack of standing. There is no “offended observer” injury.
While the cross is a symbol of Christianity, its use is now more broad (see brands like Johnson & Johnson). During WWI, the cross came to symbolize a fallen soldier.
The Lemon test is difficult to apply, and we have backed away from it. The passage of time gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality.
This cross had combination of religious and secular meanings when it was built, and since then, it has gained a broader historical significance. Now, it means different things to different people, and it does not violate the First Amendment.