Cross Case: The American Legion v. American Humanist Association


A government entity in Maryland maintains a 40-foot Latin cross in the median of a major intersection. Residents challenged the government’s display of the cross as an establishment of religion. The government claims the cross is a secular monument.

BJC filed a friend-of-the-court brief with Christian and Jewish organizations saying this display is unconstitutional. A freestanding cross is not secular, and the government has no business sponsoring its display. We should never rely on the government to advance our faith, and we should protect the religious liberty of all Americans by insisting that our government shows no favoritism for the majority religion.

Our brief makes plain what should go without saying: “The cross is the most recognizable symbol of the central promise of Christianity,” said BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman. “While Christians commonly display the cross to promote Christian teachings as revealed in scripture, the government should not. The cross is a symbol that is specific to Christianity, and the government’s efforts to claim otherwise are hollow and offensive.”

“In order to maintain a government-sponsored cross, the government and its supporters simultaneously betray the principle of religious neutrality and demean religion. People of all faith traditions are harmed when the government violates its fundamental obligation to remain neutral between religions.”

On June 20, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a splintered decision ruling that this nearly century-old, free-standing, 40-foot cross on government property can remain in place.

“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,” said BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman on the day of the ruling. “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,” Hollman said.

From the Brief
“Using the cross to honor our nation’s war dead reflects either the erroneous assumption that our military is comprised entirely of Christians, or the equally erroneous assumption that the most sacred symbol of Christianity somehow honors non-Christians as well.”

“Petitioners’ welter of alleged secular meanings for the cross, and their efforts to minimize its religious meaning, are offensive to many Christians. The Commission violates its obligation to be neutral among faiths both when it sponsors the cross and when it spins stories attempting to secularize the cross.”

“The cross is not a secular symbol, and neither the Commission nor the Court can make it so.”

“The cross is the central symbol of Christianity, invoking the central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.”

“The Latin cross was not arbitrarily chosen to honor the dead; it is not just an elongated plus sign. If that were all, a division sign would work as well. The cross honors the Christian dead because it promises resurrection.”

“To hold that government today can do anything that early generations of Americans did would turn the First Amendment into a Protestant capture. The principle of keeping government out of religious controversies remains the same, but what is religiously controversial has changed as religious diversity has increased.”

“If this Court says that a Latin cross is predominantly secular, then words and symbols have no meaning and the Court has consigned the Establishment Clause to the world of Alice in Wonderland.”

“To hold that government cannot sponsor a freestanding cross does not imply the removal of every cross from every government venue. Most obviously, privately chosen religious symbols on individual tombstones are plainly constitutional.”