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In Theory: Does the Peace Cross WWI memorial violate the 1st Amendment?

In Theory: Does the Peace Cross WWI memorial violate the 1st Amendment?
Visitors walk around the 40-foot Maryland Peace Cross dedicated to World War I soldiers on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019 in Bladensburg, Md. (Kevin Wolf / AP)

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in late February in a 1st Amendment case regarding a 40-foot cross erected in the 1920s as a memorial to 49 men from a Maryland County who lost their lives in World War I.

In its 2014 lawsuit against the memorial, the American Humanist Assn. states the Peace Cross — erected by the American Legion — violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibiting government establishment of religion. The group claims the government’s use of public funds to maintain the Latin cross supports Christianity because of its symbolism.

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A friend-of-the-court brief supporting the American Legion calls the cross a “secular war memorial” that does not endorse religion, and a federal district court agreed, but a panel of judges reversed that decision on appeal.

An L.A. Times editorial written in favor of removing the cross states, “At a time when America is becoming more religiously diverse, the court should recognize that exalting a symbol of a single faith on public property violates the 1st Amendment.”

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Q. Does the Peace Cross violate the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment? How would you argue your position before the Supreme Court?

The Peace Cross does not violate the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. It’s a longstanding, now historic memorial to people who gave their lives for our country. It’s a heartfelt tribute to people who actually accomplished something good for humanity instead of embroiling it in pointless and partisan legal arguments, as the memorial’s opponents are doing. It’s interesting the L.A. Times editorial declares that America is becoming more religiously diverse. If that were actually true, wouldn’t we see more tolerance of the cross? Wouldn’t people be more accepting of it? Recent events indicate that America is becoming more partisan against the cross. In Galatians 5:11 Paul calls it “the stumbling block of the cross,” something that people trip up over. Indeed, “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

In court I would point out that the purpose of the memorial itself was to honor fallen soldiers, not to make people become Christians. I would underscore the fact that the cross has been an enduring memorial symbol of hope embraced by Christians and non-Christians alike. Additionally, numerous military graveyards including the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia are replete with cross tombstones as memorials for fallen soldiers. Should we desecrate their graves because of the partisan views of a minority that is attempting to foist its bias on the rest of the country? I wonder how many of the opponents actually have family members in those military cemeteries. I wonder how the descendants of those so honored feel about the idea of tearing down this monument that has such deep personal meaning just to satisfy the political ideology of a loud minority group? In their context the crosses mentioned above are symbols of respect and hope, not the government’s establishment of Christianity.

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Pastor Jon Barta

Burbank

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The complaint is that the Peace Cross is on public land and therefore goes against the 1st Amendment, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The cross, because it is a leading symbol of Christianity, should not be supported by public funds.

I believe the complainants miss the point of the 1st Amendment. People are not being compelled to look at the monument or even go to its location. There is no compulsion.

Further, the second part of the 1st Amendment dealing with Freedom of Religion states “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Perhaps a case could be made that if the specific service personnel who are being honored were not Christians then the cross is inappropriate as a symbol of honor for that person’s service and sacrifice. Then we must add symbols important to them. If, in fact, there were avowed atheists among that group, we could have an area with no religious symbols for them, but instead, a drawing, sculpture, etc., representing all people. The one done by Norman Rockwell under the Four Freedoms title comes to mind. I might ask the Court, if they rule in favor of tearing down the monument, then must we tear down all the grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery because those graves are also serviced through public funds?

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Rabbi Mark H. Sobel,

Temple Beth Emet of Burbank

I’m always going to favor keeping the Peace Cross in full view of every passerby possible. The cross doesn’t simply represent a religion, it represents the literal crucifixion of the incarnate God by those who denied him in the first century. The same sort denies him now and they hate his followers. St. Paul wrote, “the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God” (1Co 1:18 NLT).

That said, may I suggest some ways to keep it where it’s been for nearly a century? First, it represents a particular group of war dead. If it could be shown that those 49 men were unanimously Christian, then the cross would best represent them personally; it wouldn’t be governmental endorsement, it would be historic acknowledgment.

Another option would be to sell the footprint upon which the cross stands back to the American Legion for a dollar and let them return to caring for it on “private” land. It also seems that this monument should have been grandfathered into the transition from previous private ownership to public, since it was already there representing communal history. And why, when the state takes over a space, must it then destroy every religious vestige? One might imagine future America’s complete de-Christianization by such acts perpetrated via eminent domain!

Look, if you want to argue that the cross is merely a secular symbol, that’s fine I guess. The practical purpose of driving a marker into the ground and having a cross bar upon which to write the deceased’s identity has always been around, but then again, Western civilization is Christian civilization, and so the cross’ religious significance is hard to discount.

One might also argue that the cross symbol is present in myriad world religions and doesn’t necessarily point to any particularly, except that the cross is the primary message of Christianity (the whole point of upcoming Easter and its purported observance by three quarters of Americans). I dunno, I wouldn’t personally want to deny the cross’ significance just to let a monument stand, but likewise I’d hate to think that soon our “One Nation Under God” will no longer tolerate the truth or its visual reminders at all.

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Rev. Bryan A. Griem, MA, MDiv

Tujunga

Yes, I believe that a Christian cross, on public property and maintained with government funds, is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman set forth a three-part test of religious establishment: 1.) that interaction of government and religion have a legitimate secular purpose; 2.) that it not endorse religion; and 3.) that it not create “excessive entanglement” between government and religion.

The appeals court in the current case, American Legion v. American Humanist Assn., said the cross has a secular function in honoring war dead but fails the two other parts of the test. A reasonable observer would see that a giant Christian cross endorses religion as a “primary effect,” and that taxpayer money for maintenance constitutes excessive religious entanglement, the arguments I would repeat if arguing the case.

But that and $5 will get me a cup of coffee. It appears the Supreme Court won’t declare the cross unconstitutional, given their comments and questions during the Court’s oral arguments on Feb. 27.

To me their reasons range from irrelevant to ridiculous. Justices Kagan and Breyer seem OK with the cross on public land because it has been there a long time — 93 years. Justice Alito worries that ruling against the cross will cause “divisiveness,” and Justice Gorsuch remarked, puzzlingly, that courts shouldn’t weigh in on disputes over religious symbols.

Justice Thomas and lawyers for the Trump administration lob in a fresh argument, without constitutional reference, that without “coersion” by government to believe a certain way, there is no violation of the Establishment Clause. This is a huge reach, and I join with the Baptist, Jewish, Islamic and other faith groups in opposing this weakening of church-state separation.

Roberta Medford

Atheist

Montrose

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