40-Foot Cross Divides Maryland Community and Starts Supreme Court Battle Over Separation of Church and State

Fred Edwords, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the memorial in Bladensburg, Md., “sends a message of Christian favoritism and exclusion of all others.”
Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

In the back room of the Colmar Manor American Legion post, about a mile from a 40-foot cross honoring soldiers who died in World War I, the veterans were worried. They feared the Supreme Court would order the cross to be removed.

“It would be like a slap in the face,” one of the veterans, Stan Shaw, said this month. “These men gave their lives for our country and you can’t build a memorial? If they tear it down, it would be a desecration.”

The cross sits on public land, on a highway median in Bladensburg, Md., in the suburbs of Washington. After dodging heavy traffic to reach it, Fred Edwords, a former official of the American Humanist Association and one of the plaintiffs in the case, explained his objection.

“We have nothing against veterans,” he said. “But this cross sends a message of Christian favoritism and exclusion of all others.”

This week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over the meaning of the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial and whether the cross that is its centerpiece violates the separation of church and state. The case, one of the most closely watched of the term, will give the court an opportunity to clarify its famously confused jurisprudence on government entanglement with religion.

The court’s last encounter with a cross that served as a war memorial was in 2010, and its decision effectively blocking the monument’s removal was badly fractured, with six justices writing opinions.

“A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion. “It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”

Justice John Paul Stevens rejected that view. “The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice,” he wrote in a dissent. “It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.”

The court’s personnel has changed since then. Justices Kennedy and Stevens have retired, and Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016. But the court is likely to remain divided, much as members of the communities near the Bladensburg cross are.

The memorial was built with private money and completed in 1925. At the dedication ceremony, a member of Congress drew on Christian imagery in his keynote speech. “By the token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary,” he said, “let us keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, Adam Liptak