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October 23, 2017

Crossing My Fingers

Jason Miller

In 1925 the town of Bladensburg, Maryland allowed the American Legion to oversee the construction of a monument in the form of a large cross on public land to honor 49 servicemen who died in World War I. The monument was aptly dubbed the Peace Cross.


In 2014, 89 years later, the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit demanding the cross-shaped monument be removed. The reason being that the monument was unconstitutional because of "an inherently religious message and creates the unmistakable appearance of honoring only Christian servicemen."


Four days ago, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington decided that the Peace Cross violated the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. The circuit court judges said the memorial excessively entangles the government in religion because the cross is the main symbol of Christianity, and the wall separating church and state must be maintained.


The Peace Cross lawsuit echoes arguments made in a previous Supreme Court case called Oden v. Perry from 2005. In that case, the justices upheld that monument to the 10 Commandments constructed by the Fraternal Order of Eagles on the grounds of the State Capitol of Texas could stay in place.


The Oden v. Perry case attempted to remove the monument from public land because it violated the separation of “Church and State” under the same Establishment Clause outlined in the Peace Cross case. The Supreme Court held in a 5 to 4 decision that the 10 Commandments, when taken into context with the other monuments on the Austin Capitol grounds held a secular purpose.


\           In the Oden v. Perry case, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the decision which stated that “simply having a religious content or promoting a religious message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.” The monument to the 10 Commandments monument could stay in place at Austin.


I can’t see an anymore secular purpose than honoring our service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Chaplains have been revered in our military since the American Revolution. I know that not all service members are religious. I also know that not all service members are atheists.


The fact that the monument is shaped like a cross seems constitutional if you read the words penned by Chief Justice Rehnquist in the decision in the Oden v. Perry case. To me, it seems that decision in the Peace Cross case opens a judicial Pandora’s Box.


Is the symbol of the cross now an unconstitutional shape on public land? Will all cross shaped monuments to the dead at Gettysburg, Antietam, or Fredericksburg need to be removed from the public eye? Is a Jewish Star of David now unconstitutional? Is an Islamic crescent moon? Where does this decision take us? Where does it end?


In 2005, it seemed that a religious symbol was fine on public land so long as the symbol was not erected as a singular monument to a religion. I hope that the Peace Cross decision is appealed to the Supreme Court. I hope the justices consider Chief Justice Rehnquist’s words from the Oden v. Perry case.


I’m crossing my fingers.


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