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February 27, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – The United States Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments Wednesday on whether a World War I-era memorial in Maryland must be removed from public land on religious grounds, in a case that could have ramifications for countless disputes over benign religious imagery and the First Amendment.

The Peace Cross in Bladensburg is a 40-foot structure completed in 1925, which is “dedicated to the heroes of Prince George's County, Maryland who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world” according to an inscription on an accompanying tablet. The sides are inscribed with four words: “endurance,” “Valor,” “devotion,” and “courage.”

Its construction was privately funded, but because it sits on public land at the busy intersection of Annapolis Road and Baltimore Avenue, the American Humanist Association (AHA) launched a challenge in 2014, claiming the First Amendment forbids government support for faith-specific memorials.

“The Bladensburg cross sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion—it appears that only Christian soldiers are worthy of veneration,” AHA claims. “It certainly does not honor the 3,500 Jewish soldiers who died in World War I and the countless other soldiers of all faith groups who have died in service since.”

In 2017, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the cross “excessively entangles the government in religion” and “breaches” the separation of church and state. This summer, the state of Maryland intervened on behalf of the cross, and the Supreme Court agreed in November to take the case.

Groups such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and American Jewish Committee have joined the secularist group’s case against the cross, Fox News reports, while 109 members of Congress, 28 states, and the Trump administration have spoken out in its defense.

“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,” First Liberty Institute president Kelly Shackelford warned.

“I know he's not buried there but I feel like he is, it's like going to the cemetery,” said Mary Ann Fenwick Laquay, the niece of one of the war dead honored by the cross, Pvt. Thomas Notley Fenwick. Veterans groups regularly hold memorial services at the cross. “It needs to stay right where it is. It's not hurting anybody […] Why are [they] so determined to destroy something that means so much to so many people?”

Reuters notes that recent Supreme Court precedent is mixed on similar cases, but the Wichita Eagle reports that justices appeared sympathetic to the cross during Wednesday’s 70-minute oral argument.

Justice Samuel Alito pressed AHA’s lawyer on the case’s ramifications for other religious memorials, asking point-blank if “you want them all taken down?” Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s appointees, raised concerns over the validity of and confusion created by the Court’s “excessive government entanglement with religion” test.

“Even some of the liberal justices suggested that they could join a narrow ruling upholding this particular memorial,” the Eagle speculates, noting that Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer both referenced the memorial’s historical significance.

No version of the phrase “separation of church and state” is actually in the Constitution; instead, it comes from Thomas Jefferson’s personal summary of the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In its original context, Jefferson was assuring a Connecticut Baptist organization that the new federal government was forbidden from intruding on Americans’ beliefs or worship practices, not arguing for religious imagery to be purged from the public sphere.

“Indeed, the purpose behind the Establishment Clause was not to create ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’ (As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals once noted, ‘this extra-constitutional construct has grown tiresome.’),” the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) notes. “The very same Congress (specifically, the First Congress) that approved the language of the Establishment Clause also provided for the appointment of chaplains in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

“In fact, on the very same day that it approved the Establishment Clause, the First Congress also passed the Northwest Ordinance,” ACLJ continues, “providing for a territorial government for lands northwest of the Ohio River, which declared: ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’”

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association by the end of June.


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