The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week on whether the World War I Bladensburg, Maryland memorial, known as the “Peace Cross,” should survive or be torn down in what could be a landmark First Amendment case that could impact memorials across the country.
In 2014, atheists filed a lawsuit claiming the memorial’s design violates the First Amendment, is “offensive,” and should be altered, moved, or destroyed. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the cross violates the Establishment clause in the Constitution, which prohibits the government establishment of religion.
First Liberty Institute and Jones Day are jointly representing The American Legion against the American Humanist Association in the monumental “church and state” case scheduled for February 27.
“The Supreme Court should honor the way Gold-Star mothers chose to remember the service and sacrifice of their sons who died defending our freedom,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty. “If this gravestone is bulldozed to the ground, it’s only a matter of time before the wrecking ball turns on Arlington National Cemetery and the hundreds of memorials like this one across the country.”
But the plaintiff in the case, Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association, told Fox News they want it torn down to honor all Americans.
“We feel and we recognize that a 40 foot tall Latin cross on government land broadcasts clearly that only Christian soldiers are being honored,” Edwords said. “All veterans were not Christians. All veterans include Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, everybody.”
The cross, finished in 1925, was erected in remembrance of 49 local men who died in World War I. A plaque on the cross’ base lists the names of those soldiers, and both faces of the cross have a circle with the symbol of the American Legion, the veterans organization that helped raise money to build it.
The memorial’s location is roughly five miles from the Supreme Court.
The shape of the “Peace Cross,” which they maintain falls into that category, was picked as a means to bear a likeness to cross-shaped grave markers used for soldiers buried in American cemeteries overseas, supporters said.
In its merits brief to the Supreme Court, attorneys with First Liberty and Jones Day argue the so-called “Lemon” or “endorsement” test ought to be abandoned and replaced with a more historically-grounded test that protects religious liberty by preventing the suppression and compulsion of religious exercise.
In addition to legal arguments filed by First Liberty, the religious liberty group included results of a nationwide poll conducted by George Barna of Metaformation, Inc. which found in a nationally representative survey of 1,000 adults, 84 percent of respondents believed the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial should be allowed to stand. Only 2 percent of the country supported its demolition.
An amicus brief filed by West Virginia and 29 other states said the Supreme Court “should reverse the lower court’s call for its destruction. As its place in our national tradition and broader cultural context make clear, the Bladensburg memorial honors both the service members it was built to honor, and the constitutional ideals – including in the First Amendment – they died to defend.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.