Towering cross-shaped monument on public land is unconstitutional, court rules
BLADENSBURG,MD - Built in memory of the forty-nine men of Prince George’s County who died in World War I, the Peace Cross stands 40-feet-tall. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)
October 18 at 2:57 PM
A federal appeals court declared unconstitutional a towering cross-shaped monument that has marked a major intersection in Prince George’s County for ninety years.
In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said the 40-foot-tall memorial maintained with thousands of dollars in public funds “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion.”
The ruling does not mean the monument must be immediately removed from public land. Supporters of the memorial, known as the Peace Cross, said the decision sets a “dangerous precedent” and vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The question for the 4th Circuit was whether the cross — which stands at Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg — is a memorial to local men lost in World War I or an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion that should be removed from public land.
Built in 1925 with funding from local families and The American Legion, the marble-and-cement cross honors 49 Prince George’s County men who died in the war. On the base are the words: valor, endurance, courage and devotion. A bronze tablet lists the names of the men and includes a quote from President Woodrow Wilson. The monument is part of a larger memorial park in the immediate area honoring veterans of several wars.
Even with the nonreligious elements, the court said , “the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones,” making it an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment that prevents the government from favoring a particular religion.
“The cross is by far the most prominent monument in the area, conspicuously displayed at a busy intersection,” wrote Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, who was joined by Judge James A. Wynn, Jr. in the opinion Wednesday by the appeals court located in Richmond.
Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory dissented, writing that the First Amendment does not require the government to “‘purge from the public sphere any reference to religion.’”