Written by Don Byrd

The U.S. Supreme Court late last week announced it is taking up a case involving a large cross monument on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland. Last year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the display unconstitutional and rejected arguments made by the government that a cross has become a generic and not purely religious symbol. 

The Baptist Joint Committee’s General Counsel, Holly Hollman, issued the following statement:

As Christians, we recognize the distinct nature of the cross as the preeminent symbol of our faith, a faith that is not shared by all veterans, much less all Americans. 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. Not every religious display on government property presents a constitutional question. Context is key, and a 40-foot cross maintained by the government undoubtedly raises significant concern. 

The Bladensburg cross was erected in 1925 and intended as a memorial for service members who died during World War I. Plaintiffs argue the sectarian display entangles government and religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

A date for oral arguments has not yet been set. The petitioner American Legion proposed the following as the issues presented in the case:

(1) Whether a 93-year-old memorial to the fallen of World War I is unconstitutional merely because it is shaped like a cross; (2) whether the constitutionality of a passive display incorporating religious symbolism should be assessed under the tests articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Van Orden v. Perry, Town of Greece v. Galloway or some other test; and (3) whether, if the test from Lemon v. Kurtzman applies, the expenditure of funds for the routine upkeep and maintenance of a cross-shaped war memorial, without more, amounts to an excessive entanglement with religion in violation of the First Amendment.

The last time the U.S. Supreme Court considered a memorial cross question was in Salazar v. Buono, a 2010 decision which focused not on the constitutionality of the cross monument but on the whether Congress’ transfer of the land surrounding it to a private entity was a permissible accommodation.