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Supreme Court to decide on 40-foot cross: Is it a war memorial or an official display of religion?

Supreme Court to decide on 40-foot cross: Is it a war memorial or an official display of religion?
In a dispute involving assertions of government endorsement of religion, defenders of the Peace Cross, which stands in Bladensburg, Md., had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Washington Post)

The Supreme Court announced Friday it will hear its first religion case with new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and decide whether a 40-foot cross that sits at a busy public intersection is a memorial to the war dead or an official endorsement of religion.

For decades, the justices have been closely split over the constitutionality of religious symbols on public property.

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In 2005, for example, they decided two cases involving the Ten Commandments and struck down one and upheld the other. First they said county officials in Kentucky may not put copies of the Ten Commandments on the walls of their courthouses because that would be seen as endorsing religion.

But in another case, they said Texas need not remove a long-standing monument on its Capitol grounds which included the commandments.

Some conservatives said they hoped the court will be more willing now to allow displays of religious symbols on public property. Advocates of church-state separation said they feared the same.

The Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Md., just outside Washington, was erected after World War I as a memorial to the war dead. It was built with money from the community and the support of the American Legion. But in 1961, it was taken over by a park and planning commission for the national capital area, and it has been maintained since by public funds.

The American Humanist Assn. sued and argued that “a 40-foot tall Latin cross — the symbol of Christianity — towering over a county’s busiest intersection” is an official endorsement of religion. As such, it violates the 1st Amendment’s ban on “an establishment of religion,” the group said.

It won a ruling from a divided 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

But the American Legion and the Maryland-National Capital Park Planning Commission appealed and urged the high court to uphold the cross as constitutional. Their lawyers argued that the cross should be seen as a historic war memorial. To rule otherwise, they said, is to call into question the crosses on display at Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere.

The justices will hear the case — American Legion vs. American Humanist Assn. — early next year and rule by late June.

The other justices took no action on several other pending appeals, including appeals from two states that seek to exclude Planned Parenthood from participating in the Medicaid program.

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