When I lived in Maryland and commuted a few miles to my Washington Times job, I often drove by a huge World War I memorial known as the “Peace Cross.” Every so often I thought: I wonder if someone is going to file a lawsuit against the monument, claiming to be offended by it.
It’s true that the Supreme Court has said there’s no legal basis in removing a monument simply because one person is offended by it -- but these are strange times. Look at what the new iconoclasm is doing to some Civil War monuments and could do to others.
In fact, one legal group posted a blog item suggesting that if the Ten Commandments offend you, don’t visit Washington, DC. And yes, there is now an effort to remove the peace cross.
Here is the top of the New York Times report on this controversy. The key: Try to find information stating why someone -- right now -- is offended by this old monument.
BLADENSBURG, Md. -- Five miles from the United States Supreme Court, a 40-foot-tall World War I memorial in the shape of a cross has stood for nearly a century. Now, it is at the center of a battle over the separation of church and state that may end up on the court’s docket.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit declared this month that the Peace Cross, which sits on state-owned land in Maryland and has been maintained with public funds, was unconstitutional, a ruling that supporters of the monument warned could result in a “cleansing” of memorials on public grounds across the country…
The Peace Cross, which commemorates 49 fallen soldiers from Prince George’s County, looms over the knotted intersection of Maryland Route 450 and United States Alternate Route 1 in this old port town of 10,000 people. ... The monument was erected in 1925 with funding from local families and the American Legion, but the state obtained title to the cross and land in 1961, and has spent at least $117,000 to maintain them.
In a 2-to-1 ruling, the three-judge panel declared that the Peace Cross violated the First Amendment by having “a primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government and religion.”
Reading that, I wondered if these circuit judges had ever driven past that cross every day to work. It’s in a roundabout more noted for honking horns than holiness. Now for some implications:
If the Fourth Circuit denies a request for the full court to reconsider the panel’s decision, defenders of the monument vow to take the case to the Supreme Court. They argue that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent, threatening national treasures such as the 24-foot Canadian Cross of Sacrifice and 13-foot Argonne Cross in Arlington National Cemetery -- both within the Fourth Circuit’s jurisdiction -- as well as the ground zero “cross,” the steel beams discovered among World Trade Center debris now on display in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
“It is brooding hostility toward religion, a sort of cleansing,” said Kelly Shackelford, the president of First Liberty Institute, one of the legal groups aiding the American Legion in defending the cross. “We would immediately need to begin massive bulldozing and sandblasting of veterans memorials across the country in a way that most people would find inconceivable.”
As I scanned various other articles about this lawsuit, I never did find out why the plaintiff thought the peace cross was suddenly offensive after it’s been there for 92 years. A press release from the American Humanist Association didn’t either.
It’s an angle other media should have brought up. The Washington Times had a different read on what else the case could mean.
Ronald D. Rotunda, professor of jurisprudence at the Fowler School of Law at Chapman University in Orange, California, said if the logic of the court’s ruling is applied consistently, countless public memorials that contain religious references could be ordered to be altered or destroyed.
He said the court’s reliance on “fact-specific” judgments is “a fancy way of saying, ‘Trust us. We don’t make the legal rules. We should ban what we feel like banning, and we’re not going to ban Arlington Cemetery crosses right now.’”
“Oh, and those crosses are smaller!” Mr. Rotunda said. “Really, that’s legal precedent. They find in the First Amendment a constitutional test based on the size of the cross. That’s a hoot!”
The governor of Maryland has sworn he’ll fight the ruling, as he too has driven by the cross just like I have. A Save-the-Peace-Cross group has its own Facebook page, so this looks to be a good fight brewing here.
But the question that still niggles: What moved the humanists to go after this monument right now? I believe only one of the plaintiffs lives in Prince George’s County, which is where the cross is. All three of them are humanist activists which they have a right to be, but let’s not pretend they’re ordinary Bladensburg residents whose lives are being ruined by this monument.
So do read the rest of what the Times has here. The implications are staggering when you consider how many crosses there are on historic monuments across the country. Let’s hope more reporters dig into the details of this important story.