U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Court: 'Peace Cross' on Public Land Is Unconstitutional

Somewhere, hippies are rolling over in their graves.

"The Peace Cross," a 40-foot monument in Maryland, has been ruled unconstitutional. A divided federal appeals court said it "has the primary effect of endorsing religion and exclusively entangles the government in religion."

It doesn't matter, the court said, that it has been there for 90 years as a memorial to men who died in World War I. Actually, the soldiers may be rolling over in their graves.

Establishment Clause

Built in 1925 with funds from local families and the American Legion, the marble-and-cement cross is part of a public park and honors 49 men from Prince George's County. It lists the servicemen's names and includes a quote from President Woodrow Wilson.

Even with nonreligious elements, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said, "the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones." That makes it an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

"The cross is by far the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection," Judge Stephanie D. Thacker wrote for the majority in American Humanist Association v. Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Judge Roger L. Gregory disagreed. He said the First Amendment does not require the government to "purge from the public sphere any reference to religion."

"Save the Cross"

No sooner had the appeals court ruled than residents of Bladensburg, Maryland, vowed to save the Peace Cross. Local Channel 4 television said the people were outraged by the court decision.

It surprised the locals because a federal judge had ruled last year that the cross had a secular purpose. They started an online petition to defend the monument.

Meanwhile, representatives of the American Legion and the First Liberty Institute said they would appeal the decision.

"We're certainly not going to stop here," said supporter Kelly Shakelford. "If this is the law, everything else is in danger."

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