It’s 40 feet tall and concrete. Is ‘Peace Cross’ a civic or Christian symbol?

Kevin Wolf/AP
Visitors walk around the 40-foot Peace Cross dedicated to World War I soldiers on Feb. 13 in Bladensburg, Md. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether the cross, which is supported by taxpayers, violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
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When the Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday to determine the fate of a century-old concrete cross in Bladensburg, Md., many of them had a lot to do with the emotional burdens of history.

Monika Barilla is one of the many area residents who grew up near the site of the 40-foot “Peace Cross,” now officially considered a secular memorial to local boys killed in World War I and maintained by taxpayer dollars. With deep ties to the military and a tradition of devout Christian faith, her family fears the case first brought by the American Humanist Association five years ago is a direct attack on their local heritage.

Why We Wrote This

Is secularism just common sense neutrality when it comes to public spaces, or is secularism one “ideology” competing among many?

But Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran, feels a different burden. None of the area’s Jewish soldiers were commemorated by the cross, which carries a heavy meaning for him regardless. “To assume that a cross that is put up like that is supposed to be a symbol ... even for those who are not Christians – that’s an absolute affront that speaks in our name,” he says.

Such religious symbols cases are notoriously convoluted, legal experts say, and the Supreme Court could be poised to issue a new precedent later this year.

There are a lot of complicated and painful reasons why Michael “Mikey” Weinstein decided to stand on the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday and speak out against the modest support a Maryland municipality provides for its massive World War I memorial, a century-old 40-foot cross.

A lot of these reasons have to do with what could be called the emotional burdens of history – both his own experiences as a Jewish American veteran of the United States Air Force and those of many other Jews who’ve lived in majority-Christian countries throughout the span of time.

It’s history, too, that makes the prominently placed concrete cross in Bladensburg, a town of 10,000 just outside the nation’s capital, such an important and even cherished war monument for many of its local residents, most of whom fully support spending some taxpayer dollars to maintain it on municipal property. It’s a symbol of their civic pride and American identity, some say.

Why We Wrote This

Is secularism just common sense neutrality when it comes to public spaces, or is secularism one “ideology” competing among many?

Today, the “Peace Cross,” as locals call it, is officially considered a secular commemoration for everyone in the area who died fighting during World War I, including Jews and those of other faiths. A cross in such a context, many supporters argue, does not have to be viewed as a religious symbol with a sectarian meaning or purpose.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday to determine whether the Bladensburg cross violates the First Amendment’s prohibition of an establishment of religion. Mr. Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, suggested that there just seems something conceptually wrong, if not theologically wrong, with giving a secular meaning to the central symbol of Christianity and then arguing it can apply to people like him.

“To assume that a cross that is put up like that is supposed to be a symbol of honorable service, and in fact a symbol of ultimate service even for those who are not Christians who are killed – that’s an absolute affront that speaks in our name and denies us the ability to fully describe the level of marginalization and humiliation it causes,” Weinstein says in an interview.

Still, the Bladensburg case, first brought in 2014 by local residents and the American Humanist Association, could offer definitive new guidance, legal expert say, for an area of establishment clause jurisprudence that is especially convoluted.

“The court’s decisions and doctrines having to do with religious symbols and displays are notoriously unpredictable and manipulable,” says Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and the founding director of its law school's Program on Church, State and Society. “For more than three decades, justices’ opinions in these cases have consisted mainly of speculation about the messages various symbols convey to imaginary observers,” he says. The case is in many ways the first clear-cut religious symbols case in almost 15 years.

And with six new justices since then, including a solidly conservative majority, many do not expect the high court to rule against the state commission that pays for the cross’s upkeep. Earlier this month, in a bitterly divided 5-to-4 ruling, the majority denied the request of a Muslim inmate on death row, saying the Alabama prison policy that allowed only for a Christian chaplain to be present could stand.

On Wednesday, a lawyer representing the commission argued that there is precedence for religious symbols to take on independent secular meaning.

“Look above you,” Neal Katyal said to the justices.

Above them is a frieze depicting, among others, Moses carrying the Commandments.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, the case has already highlighted some of the deeply emotional questions facing the country as communities continue to become less white and less Christian.

‘Our Peace Cross’

Monika Barilla is one of the many residents who grew up celebrating Memorial Day at the Peace Cross. The lawsuit brought by the American Humanist Association has felt to her like an emotional burden the past five years, with Christianity itself under attack.

She’s passionate about the long-standing memorial and the local lore surrounding it: A group of mothers in 1921 tried to raise funds to construct the large memorial for 49 of their fallen sons, hoping it could evoke the crosses that stood over the local boys buried far away in Europe.

“The people of Prince George’s County are a strong people, and we fight for what we believe in,” says Ms. Barilla, a Maryland mother of two whose family has roots in the nation’s armed forces. Her father was in the Air Force and her brother was a Marine, she says, and her extended family includes veterans from both World Wars. “It’s just in our blood,” she says.

“To tear down our Peace Cross – that would be the equivalent of someone destroying your family home,” adds Barilla, an employee of Aggregate Industries.

There are hundreds of religious memorials like the Bladensburg cross across the country. Civic pride in cherished local symbols is part of the debate about identity and public symbols and the role of government in protecting the dignity of religious minorities.

Barilla and others are afraid that the seemingly secular principle of “neutrality” could become an aggressive ideological weapon used to reshape the nation’s public spaces.

“It would require a serious devotion to iconoclasm to really strip all elements of religion from our culture and architecture and from the public space,” says Eric Baxter, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which submitted a brief supporting the Bladensburg cross to the Supreme Court.

“I think most Americans don’t want the censorship police going around and trying to remove every element of religion,” Mr. Baxter continues. “And that really does just amount to a hostility to religion in an effort to force a secular veneer on everything that’s happened throughout our history or that’s reflected in our culture.”

Finding a middle ground

Weinstein and others who object to the memorial say that a compromise can be reached and that, for the most part, they do not want these symbols taken down or destroyed. He would have no issue with a private memorial for Christian soldiers, even one so prominent. But his organization found that a number of the 250,000 Jewish American soldiers who served in World War I were from Prince George’s County. None of those killed were among the 49 commemorated.

“One solution for this case might be to turn the memorial into a private memorial in which government is no longer involved,” says John Vile, professor of political science and dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “I think the inclusion of the names of non-Christians on the memorial would also suggest that it was designed to honor all who fell, and not only Christians.”

Conservative justices on the court, past and present, have been critical of a 1971 precedent in a case in which the Supreme Court struck down state support for private and religious schools. It then outlined a three-pronged test to determine whether a state practice violates the establishment clause, saying it must have a secular purpose and must not advance or inhibit the practice of religion or create “excessive entanglement with religion.”

In 2005, however, the Supreme Court didn’t rely on this precedent when it allowed a display of the Ten Commandments to remain on the grounds of the Texas state capitol. Justice Stephen Breyer was the deciding fifth vote, and he ruled that the establishment clause did not require the government to clear government spaces of all religious symbols.

“Such absolutism is not only inconsistent with our national traditions, … [but it] would also tend to promote the kind of social conflict the establishment clause seeks to avoid,” Justice Breyer wrote in his decision in Van Orden v. Perry.

‘The country is changing’

Still, for Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of American Humanist Association, a lot of the social conflict stems from the kinds of majoritarian privileges that Christianity exerts throughout the country at the expense of those who don’t share the faith.

“That doesn’t have quite a lot of foresight in its thinking, because the country is changing,” says Mr. Speckhardt. “Little by little, over the years, there are more and more nonreligious folks, more and more folks from different faiths, and eventually, you know, it’s foreseeable that there will not be a Christian majority forever in this country.”

“And when that happens, is the assumption that everything will slip to whatever the new majority is?” continues Speckhardt. “I don’t think that’s what the folks who are pushing for maintaining crosses like this on government property really would like to see happen. I think that there is some sort of assumption by the other side that Christian values are somehow intertwined with American values, which is something that we as humanists would disagree with.”

While Barilla believes that American humanists are out to undermine Christianity, she’s not concerned if American municipalities might decide to erect a civic memorial with a secularized symbol of another faith, such as Islam, she says.

“I have to say, honestly, I would protect any memorial that is dedicated to any American soldier that is threatened,” says Barilla. “Taxpayers should always be willing to support those soldiers that keep this nation free. I am a Christian, but I don’t care what shape, color, size, or location a monument that is dedicated to a fallen soldier, I will fight to save it.”

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