The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday ruled that a Maryland war memorial in the shape of a giant cross does not constitute government endorsement of a particular faith and can stay in place, a ruling hailed by religious freedom advocates and slammed by secularists.
In his majority opinion in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, Justice Samuel Alito says the “Peace Cross” in Bladensburg, Maryland, is clearly a Christian symbol but there is also historical and community significance to the 93-year-old memorial constructed to honor local soldiers who died in World War I.
The vote was 7-2, with multiple concurring opinions and a dissent from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that was joined by Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Clarence Thomas said the cross was “clearly constitutional.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the memorial should stand on “history, tradition, and precedent.” Justice Neil Gorsuch said the American Humanist Association did not even have standing to argue the case.
In her dissent, Ginsburg says it would be inappropriate to honor Christian soldiers with a Star of David so it is wrong to pay tribute to people of varying faiths under a cross. Justice Stephen Breyer sided with the majority but strongly suggested he would not support new monuments or displays in the form of a cross.
The Family Research Council submitted a friend of the court brief in defense of the “Peace Cross.” FRC Vice President for Policy Travis Weber says this is a good day for religious freedom.
“The court today said this memorial can stand. It’s perfectly consistent with the Establishment Clause of the first amendment. It’s not an establishment of religion. It’s good to see a majority of the court agreeing with this result,” said Weber, who also directs the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.
Weber says those on the other side of the debate have a deeply flawed understanding of what the framers of the Constitution meant when they forbade Congress from establishing religion.
“It’s very clear that they were getting at the state setting up formally a system of religious belief and forcing people to abide by that specific system of religious belief. They were not getting at any religious expression in the public square,” said Weber.
While Weber is grateful for Thursday’s ruling, he wishes the court would be even more decisive.
“The court could have gone further to clarify the tangled confusion of the Establishment Clause case law that’s currently on the books. The heartening thing is this moves us in the right direction,” said Weber.
Listen to the full podcast to hear why Thursday’s ruling could spell the end of the “Lemon test,” which is often used by lower courts to remove religious symbols from the public square. He also responds to Justice Ginsburg’s argument that a cross should not be used for a memorial to soldiers of multiple faiths.