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Cross Beside Highway is a Memorial But Not Religious, Judge Says

Updated on December 11, 2015

Maryland Highway Cross Stays, Judge Orders

Bladensburg Cross Does Not Need to be Torn Down

The Bladensburg Cross that memorializes Prince George’s County, Maryland's World War I dead withstood a constitutional challenge in December 2015 in federal court by critics who say it is a religious symbol.

The American Humanist Association argued in a lawsuit that it should be torn down because it violates a First Amendment provision that says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, according to a report by The Legal Forum (www.legal-forum.net).

The 40-foot tall Celtic cross was erected in 1925 on a highway median in Bladensburg to honor the 49 local men killed during World War I. It is maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Attorneys for the commission said the secular purpose of the cross to honor deceased war veterans meant that it was not primarily a religious symbol.

U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland Judge Deborah Chasanow agreed. Her 36-page opinion said the monument’s groundbreaking was a predominantly secular affair that included the groundbreaking of the National Defense Highway.

The monument’s secular purpose as a memorial is reinforced by a plaque, the American Legion’s seal and words such as valor, endurance, courage, and devotion written on it, the ruling said. None of these features contains a religious reference. In short, the cross was intended to honor fallen soldiers, the judge wrote.

The case was closely watched by veterans groups and civil liberties lawyers nationwide.

The ruling appears to conflict with other recent federal court decisions based on symbols with religious implications.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the 29-foot cross at the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego was a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

A federal judge in 2014 blocked plans by Lake Elsinore, Calif., to build a veterans memorial at a baseball park. The granite monument for the memorial would depict a kneeling soldier and a cross.

After Judge Chasanow’s ruling on the Bladensburg Cross, American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett released a statement saying the monument was erected not as a tribute to a religion but to honor soldiers who lost their lives in what we once thought of as the Great War for the liberty of the world.

Is a Cross Always a Religious Symbol?

Should a cross beside a highway honoring war dead be removed because it is a religious symbol?

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