Justia Summary

In 1918, residents of Prince George’s County decided to erect a cross as a war memorial to stand at the terminus of another World War I memorial—the National Defense Highway connecting Washington to Annapolis. The 32-foot tall Latin cross has a plaque, naming the 49 county soldiers who died in the war. The Bladensburg Cross has since been the site of patriotic events honoring veterans. Monuments honoring the veterans of other conflicts have been added in a nearby park. The monument is now at the center of a busy intersection. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission acquired the Cross and the land in 1961 and uses public funds for its maintenance.

The Supreme Court held that the Bladensburg Cross does not violate the Establishment Clause. Even if a monument’s original purpose was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment and the monument may be retained for the sake of its historical significance or its place in a common cultural heritage. The cross is a symbol closely linked to World War I. The nation adopted it as part of its military honors, establishing the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross. The soldiers’ final resting places abroad were marked by crosses or Stars of David. As World War I monuments have endured through the years and become a familiar part of the physical and cultural landscape, requiring their removal or alteration would not be viewed by many as a neutral act. The Bladensburg Cross has acquired historical importance, reminding people of the sacrifices of their predecessors. Although the monument was dedicated during a period of heightened racial and religious animosity, it includes the names of Christian and Jewish and Black and White soldiers.

Four justices noted that the “Lemon” test ambitiously attempted to find a grand unified theory of the Establishment Clause but the “expectation of a ready framework has not been met.” “Where monuments, symbols, and practices with a longstanding history follow in the tradition of the First Congress in respecting and tolerating different views, endeavoring to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and recognizing the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans, they are likewise constitutional.”

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