Written by Don Byrd

A federal appeals court has ruled unconstitutional an enormous memorial cross that sits in a Bladensburg, Maryland park owned by the state’s Park and Planning Commission. The cross was completed in 1925 and intended as a war memorial for service members from the county who died during World War I. Defending the cross against a claim that it violates the separation of church and state, the Commission argued that a cross is considered a generic, rather than purely religious, commemorative symbol. The appeals panel, ruling 2-1, disagreed and held the Bladensburg cross memorial is unconstitutional because it would appear to a reasonable observer to be an endorsement of religion, and because the display “creates an excessive entanglement between government and religion,” even though it is accompanied by other, secular memorials.

In its opinion, the court emphasized, thankfully, that the cross *is religious* and represents the Christian faith. Here is an excerpt:

The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity. And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland; and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds. Therefore, we hold that the purported war memorial breaches the “wall of separation between Church and State.”

Indeed, the Latin cross is “exclusively a Christian symbol, and not a symbol of any other religion.” Notwithstanding the Latin cross’s inherent religious meaning, the district court concluded that it is also a symbol of World War I, particularly overseas. Specifically, the district court concluded that the Cross at issue here evokes the image of white crosses on foreign battle fields. For this proposition, it cites the Legion’s expert witness report, which states that “the symbolism of the cross is that of individual loss of life, not of the Resurrection [of Jesus Christ].” While the Latin cross may generally serve as a symbol of death and memorialization, it only holds value as a symbol of death and resurrection because of its affiliation with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

One simply cannot ignore the fact that for thousands of years the Latin cross has represented Christianity. Even in the memorial context, a Latin cross serves not simply as a generic symbol of death, but rather a Christian symbol of the death of Jesus Christ.

Admittedly, the Cross contains a few secular elements. . . . . But the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones. The Cross is by far the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection, standing four stories tall, and overshadowing the other monuments, the tallest of which is only ten feet tall and located approximately 200 feet from the Cross.

Meanwhile, in another important religious display decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal in support of a Ten Commandments monument in Bloomfield, New Mexico. That leaves in place the 10th Circuit’s ruling last year that the display is unconstitutional.