Since 1925, the Baldensburg Peace Cross has stood as a tribute to 49 area soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War. 89 years after the dedication of the Cross, respondents filed this lawsuit, claiming that they are offended by the sight of the memorial on public land and that its presence there and the expenditure of public funds to maintain it violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
It does not violate the Establishment Clause when a reasonable observer aware of the Cross’s history, setting and secular elements would not view the monument as having the effect of impermissibly endorsing religion.
Since 1925, the Bladensburg Peace Cross has stood as a tribute to 49 area soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War. 89 years after the dedication of the Cross, respondents filed this lawsuit, claiming that they are offended by the sight of the memorial on public land and that its presence there and the expenditure of public funds to maintain it violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The image used in the Bladensburg memorial – a plain Latin cross – also took on new meaning after World War I. The image of a simple white cross developed into a central symbol of the conflict. Recognition of the cross’s symbolism extended to local communities across the country.
Does the Bladensburg Peace Cross that has stood as a tribute to 49 area soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War violate the Establishment Clause?
No, the cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind to everything 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.
When the War Department began preparing designs for permanent headstones in 1919, no topic managed to stir more controversy than the use of religious symbolism. Everyone involved in the dispute, however, saw the Latin cross as a Christian symbol, not a universal or secular one. no one doubted that the Latin cross was sectarian gravemarker and therefore appropriate only for soldiers who adhered to those faiths. Holding the Commission’s display of the Cross unconstitutional would not inevitably require the destruction of other cross-shaped memorials throughout the country. Like the determination of the violation itself, the proper remedy is necessarily context specific.
There is no single formula for resolving Establishment Clause challenges. The Court must instead consider each case in light of the basic purposes that the Religion Clauses were meant to serve: assuring religious liberty and tolerance of all, avoiding religiously based social conflict, and maintaining that separation of church and state that allows each to flourish in its separate sphere. Allowing the State of Maryland to display and maintain the Peace Cross poses no threat to those ends.
Just as the purpose for maintaining a monument, symbol or practice may evolve, the message conveyed may change over time. With sufficient time, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices can become embedded features of a community’s landscape and identity. In the same way, consider the many cities and towns across the United States that bear religious names. Yet few would argue that this history requires that these names be erased from the map. When time’s passage imbues a religiously expressive monument, symbol, or practice with this kind of familiarity and historical significance, removing it may no longer appear neutral, especially to the local community for which it has taken on particular meaning. A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion. Applying these principles, the Bladensburg Cross does not violate the Establishment Clause.