Editorial:: The Supreme Court wrongly blesses a religious symbol on public property

The Bladensburg Peace Cross, as the local landmark is known, in Bladensburg, Md.
(Algerina Perna / TNS)

If the United States aims to be a tolerant, pluralistic country that treats all its citizens with respect, the Supreme Court shouldn’t be giving its blessing to the display of one faith’s sacred symbols on property that belongs to the public. But that’s what seven justices did Thursday when they ruled that a giant memorial cross at a highway intersection near Washington, D.C., doesn’t violate the 1st Amendment.

The disappointing decision, in which two of the court’s liberal justices joined five conservatives, didn’t blur the separation of church and state as badly as some feared. But it’s still objectionable.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg correctly noted in her dissent: “Soldiers of all faiths are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross.” Just as a Star of David would be an unfitting way to honor a Christian who died for his country, she argued, a cross is equally unsuitable for those of other faiths who died defending their nation. “To non-Christians,” Ginsburg wrote, “the state’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they ‘are outsiders, not full members of the political community.’”

Rightly read, the 1st Amendment forbids the government from embracing that symbol. That is how the court should have ruled.

The so-called Peace Cross on a traffic island in Bladensburg, Md., was erected after World War I as a memorial to the war dead. Consisting of a 32-foot-high Latin cross atop a large pedestal, the monument was built with financial contributions from the community and the support of the American Legion. But in 1961 it was taken over by a public park and planning commission, and it has been maintained with taxpayer funds ever since.


The constitutionality of that arrangement was challenged by the American Humanist Assn., which prevailed in a federal appeals court. But on Monday the justices reversed that ruling.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that, although the cross is a “preeminent Christian symbol,” the Peace Cross has a “special significance” because for nearly a century it has “expressed the community’s grief at the loss of the young men who perished, its thanks for their sacrifice, and its dedication to the ideals for which they fought.”

Moreover, Alito suggested, the passage of time has eroded the cross’ association with Christianity. “As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse,” he wrote, “a community may preserve such monuments, symbols and practices for the sake of their historical significance or their place in a common cultural heritage.” He compared “religiously expressive monuments” to place names such as Corpus Christi, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

It’s true that some associations of government with religion, such as place names that reference Christianity, have lost their religious connotations. But that can hardly be said of the Peace Cross, whose associations with Christianity persist despite the passage of time.

Ginsburg vividly described those associations in her dissent, which was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Ginsburg acknowledged the importance of memorializing the war dead. But she rightly pointed out that a Latin cross does so by affirming that “thanks to the soldier’s embrace of Christianity, he will be rewarded with eternal life.” That is why the cross is “a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers.” But for the same reason, Ginsburg added, “using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol.”

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She is correct, as was the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals when it ruled against the Peace Cross. That court said that the cross’ placement on public property “says to any reasonable observer that the commission either places Christianity above other faiths, views being American and Christian as one [and] the same, or both.”

Ginsburg also offered a simple solution: relocating the monument to private land or transferring ownership of the land and monument to a private party. (The latter solution ended litigation over crosses in the Mojave National Preserve and atop San Diego’s Mt. Soledad.)

It’s understandable that Christians would want to honor their fallen soldiers with a cross, the supreme symbol of their faith. But rightly read, the 1st Amendment forbids the government from embracing that symbol. That is how the court should have ruled.

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