Cross photo copyright 2019 Baptist Joint Committee

Written by Don Byrd

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday, February 27 in a case involving a church-state challenge to a large memorial cross on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland. The dispute has raised important questions about, among other things, the religious significance of the cross. The government argues that it is a secular symbol that honors all war dead; the plaintiffs on the other hand contend that such a prominent Christian symbol constitutes an improper religious favoritism. 

For important context and extremely helpful insight about this case, I recommend the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page, which includes a statement by General Counsel Holly Hollman, a fantastic podcast featuring Hollman and Executive Director Amanda Tyler, and information about the brief filed by the BJC with the Supreme Court. In its brief, written by church-state scholar Douglas Laycock, the BJC emphasizes that the “Cross is not a secular symbol.”

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.

As Hollman explains, the government’s efforts to secularize the cross are “hollow and offensive.” If the court decides the Bladensburg Cross is a constitutional display, the brief goes on to argue, it should do so not because it is secular, nor because it is harmless, but only because, since it has been such a longstanding memorial, “it might be more religiously divisive to take it down than to leave it up.”

The Bladensburg cross is… the fruit of a former establishment. It was erected at a time when Christians were dominant both numerically and politically, when they were free to exercise that dominance with little thought for religious minorities, and when there was no Jewish congregation in Prince George’s County.

But for government to erect such a cross today would be a very different thing, done in conscious disregard of religious minorities that are far more numerous and visible. Few governmental units could erect such a cross today without arousing major controversy.

For an overview of the case, see Adam Liptak’s report for the NYTimes and Adelle Banks’ report for Religion News Service.

For more in-depth legal analysis, see this post from law professors Ira Lupu and Robert Tuttle.