'Peace Cross' Conflict Continues

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 05, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An appeals court battle over Maryland's 40-foot 'Peace Cross' is over, but the conflict will go on.

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals refused en banc to hear American Humanist Association v. Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. A three-judge panel ruled last year that the World War I memorial had the "primary effect of endorsing religion and exclusively entangles the government in religion."

The en banc court, split by multiple dissenters, declined to reconsider that decision. In the meantime, the "Peace Cross" supporters are taking their fight to the next level.

People Outraged

Built in 1925 with funds from local families and the American Legion, the marble-and-cement cross is part of a public park and honors 49 men from Prince George's County. It lists the servicemen's names and includes a quote from President Woodrow Wilson.

The plaintiffs sued on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A trial judge dismissed the case, but the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded.

No sooner had the appeals court ruled than residents of Bladensburg vowed to save the cross. News reports said people were outraged, and representatives said they would appeal the latest decision.

"We're going to put every possible resource into preserving this memorial," said Hiram Sasser, representing the American Legion. "We just feel like we owe it to the memory of those 49 soldiers, sailors and Marines who died fighting for this country."

Memorials at Risk

Justices Paul Niemeyer and J. Harvey Wilkinson filed separate dissents, criticizing the majority for disregarding precedent and disturbing the memory of the fallen soldiers. Niemeyer said their decision put "at risk hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of similar monuments."

In Van Orden v. Perry, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court held that "a large granite monument bearing the text of the Ten Commandments located on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol" was allowed by the Establishment Clause, despite the Court's recognition that the Ten Commandments' text "has a religious message."

Wilkinson said the soldiers could not speak for themselves, but "may the living hear their silence."

"We should take care not to traverse too casually the line that separates us from our ancestors and that will soon enough separate us from our descendants," he wrote. "The present has many good ways of imprinting its values and sensibilities upon society. But to roil needlessly the dead with the controversies of the living does not pay their deeds or their time respect."

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