In 1925, a group of mothers came together, committed to commemorating their sons who had tragically been lost in the blood bath that was World War I. To this end, they organized the community, fundraised, and erected the “Peace Cross” in Bladensburg, Maryland with the assistance of the, non-religious, American Legion.
Today, nearly 95 years later, some are claiming that this cross cannot remain on public land, as it represents an establishment of religion by the state. On February 27, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of The American Legion v. The American Humanist Association. The Court will soon release its important decision, which may set a precedent for the future existence of memorials around the United States.
It is worth noting that the land and statue were initially owned and cared for by the American Legion, before being taken over by the state. Since 1961, the state of Maryland has cared for the statue and land. Thus, the interpretation of the Establishment Clause pushed forward by the American Humanist Association is ahistorical and fails to account for the precedent of Supreme Court cases, which have previously granted the continued existence of similar memorials. This includes Thomas Van Orden v. Rick Perry. First, the state did not originally erect the memorial, and second, the intention of the memorializers was to put up a symbol of peace, in the way they best knew, and so they turned to the cross.
The American conception of the First Amendment does not necessitate societal freedom from religion, but rather freedom of religion. What makes America unique is that, unlike many European societies, the United States has consistently reestablished not only the freedom to private conscience, but the freedom of public expression of one’s faith.
In this guarantee, our Constitution ensures that the American people are allowed to publicly display their religious beliefs. The mothers of Bladensburg and the American Legion practiced this public expression in their establishment of this monument to the 49 fallen soldiers. And in entrusting this monument to the state, did not intend for the state to make a public establishment of the Christian religion, but rather intended for the enduring memorialization of America’s involvement in World War I, and the citizens that it lost in that war.
The implications of this case are significant, and will have a wide ranging impact on the state of memorialization and religious expression in the United States.
Where will the line will be drawn in regards to monuments and memorials if the Supreme Court takes the side of the Humanist Association? If one takes a walk through Arlington National Cemetery, a number of monuments will be seen that bear the shape of crosses, and the Star of David. All around the country there are crosses that adorn battlefields and town squares. Will all these be torn down?
Far from state establishment of religion, these markers commemorate those who have given their lives for this country, citizens who gave all in defense of the rights and liberties every American should retain.
How confused is a citizenry that insists the memorials of yesterday must be torn from the ground and uprooted?
If nothing else, we ought to respect the dead, and especially those who served the nation in combat and died in battle, enough to commemorate them in the way chosen by the families of the fallen. That is a fundamental American liberty, the right of religious freedom, and it is enshrined in our Constitution. Let’s hope the U.S. Supreme Court does not let The American Humanist Association put that asunder.