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BJC Responds to Supreme Court’s Bladensburg Cross Ruling

by | Jun 26, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court on a 7-2 vote affirmed as constitutional a controversial large memorial cross maintained on government land in Maryland. Writing for the Court in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, Justice Samuel Alito explained that the 40-foot cross is not a church-state violation because it is a longstanding memorial to fallen soldiers of World War I. The cross, he argued, was a “central symbol of the conflict.”

In a statement remarking on the decision, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman emphasized the seemingly limited scope of the Court’s ruling, which included opinions written by 7 different justices:

“The Court’s decision holding that the Bladensburg cross is constitutional relies heavily on the particular history of that memorial. The splintered decision shows how difficult it is to reconcile the government’s promise of religious liberty for all while upholding a massive Latin cross on government land. 

BJC is pleased that the Court did not accept the extreme arguments put forth by the government and its allies. The Court did not abandon the First Amendment’s promise of neutrality among faiths. It also specifically acknowledged the cross as a Christian symbol, not a universal symbol of sacrifice.

Important for our pluralistic society, the decision does not support the constitutionality of Christian-only monuments sponsored by government today.”

You can read much more from Hollman in her piece for a SCOTUSblog symposium exploring the decision in-depth.

BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler likewise made the point that Justice Alito’s defense of the Bladensburg Cross “focused on its specific history and its context as a World War I memorial.” In an op-ed for Religion News Service, Tyler encouraged citizens to “remain vigilant to make sure that the Bladensburg Cross remains a relic of the past and not an example for the future.” 

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted multiple times from a friend-of-the-court brief filed by BJC and authored by church-state scholar Douglas Laycock. But the central arguments of the brief may have been just as present in the contours of Justice Alito’s opinion, which – as the brief urged – resisted the call to issue a more sweeping opinion and focused instead on the long history of the specific memorial in question.

You can read the Supreme Court opinion here.