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June 20, 2019

In a Limited Ruling, Supreme Court Upholds Government’s Display of 40-Foot-Tall Cross

WASHINGTON — A governmental display of an enormous Latin cross as a war memorial does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to a decision issued today by the Supreme Court in American Legion v. American Humanist Association. Although the ruling is a blow to the separation of church and state, the court decided the case on narrow grounds, making clear that the decision is not an invitation for government officials to erect new religious displays.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a government entity, owns and maintains the Bladensburg Cross, which towers over a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland. Supported by the American Legion and the Trump administration, the Commission argued that the cross memorializes and honors American soldiers of every faith — even though the Latin cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity.

In today’s decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the monument, which is nearly a century old, is permissible because it was built to honor the sacrifice of World War I soldiers and because, purportedly, it emulated the “solemn image of endless rows of white crosses” in World War I cemeteries abroad. The ruling, however, was narrow. The court emphasized that “retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones.”

“The government’s giant cross in Bladensburg sends an obvious message of religious favoritism, and today’s decision holding otherwise is deeply disappointing,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The silver lining, though, is that the ruling is limited to the unique circumstances of this particular monument, and is hardly a free pass for government officials to promote their preferred religious symbols and messages in the future.”

Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, added: “The state of Maryland is religiously diverse, and so, too, are Marylanders who have served in our armed forces. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court failed to see that the Bladensburg Cross elevates the service and sacrifice of some veterans over others, violating the basic constitutional requirement of religious neutrality.”

The amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Maryland, and allied religious and civil rights organizations can be found here: