The Cross Endures

On June 20th, 2019 the United States Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of allowing a forty-foot memorial Latin cross to remain on state-owned property in Maryland. Declaring that government efforts to maintain the landmark did not violate the First Amendment Establishment of Religion Clause of the Constitution. In what had become a dangerous path towards the secularism of America, the nation’s highest Court granted an essential victory for those espousing the idea that this nation was founded under God. A little back story will help in seeing the importance of this case. In 1918, residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland, formed a committee for the purpose of erecting a memorial for the county’s soldiers. The ones who died in World War I. The committee designed the monument as a cross, which had become a recognized symbol of the war. They placed it in a strategic median where people could see it coming in and heading out of town. Among the committee’s members were the mothers of 10 deceased soldiers. The committee hired sculptor and architect John Joseph Earley to design it. Although it’s still unknown precisely why the committee chose the Cross, it is not surprising. They and many others commemorating World War I adopted a symbol so widely associated with that horrible event.
Before the use of a cross to mark a burial site, soldier’s graves were marked with a triangle. In order to raise money to build the Cross, they sent out a form. The form read the following passage: We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, Pledge Faith in our Brothers who gave their all in the World War to Make the World Safe for Democracy. Their Mortal Bodies have turned to dust, but their spirit lives to guide us through Life in the way of Godliness, Justice, and Liberty. With our Motto, One God, One Country, and One Flag, We contribute to this Memorial Cross. They are commemorating the memory of those who have not Died in Vain. Since 1925, the Bladensburg Peace Cross has stood there as a tribute to those forty-nine area soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War. Eighty-nine years after the dedication a lawsuit was filed by a liberal organization claiming that they were offended by the sight of the memorial on public land and that its presence there and the expenditure of public funds to maintain it violated the Constitution. In 2014, the American Humanist Association and others filed suit in District Court, alleging a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The American Legion entered the action and defended the Cross. The District Court granted summary judgment for the American Legion, holding that the Cross satisfies both the test announced in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602, and the analysis applied by Justice Breyer in upholding a Ten Commandments monument in Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U. S. 677. However, the Fourth Circuit reversed.
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari, which means they agreed to hear the case because of the importance of the issues. Justice Samuel Alito, in the majority opinion, wrote that the Cross is without a doubt a Christian symbol infused with the beliefs and ideals of the religion. However, with the passage of time, it has also become a symbol for the resting place. One for veterans who never returned home and a place for the community to gather and honor them and their sacrifices for America. He further added that it is also natural and appropriate for a monument commemorating the death of particular individuals to invoke the symbols that signify what death meant for those who are memorialized. Therefore, it has also become a historical landmark commemorating WWI, and excluding those symbols could make the memorial seem incomplete. Alito analyzed that removing or destroying the Cross would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment. While the attorney’s defending the Cross focused on its secular relevance, the Court, through Justice Kagan, brought to light that across is the “foremost symbol of Christianity that invokes the central theological claim of Christianity, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the Cross for humanity’s sins and that he rose from the dead. This is why Christians use crosses as a way to memorialize the dead.” Justice Thomas reasoned that the Bladensburg Cross “is constitutional even though the cross has religious significance.”
Religious displays or speech need not be limited to those considered secular he writes in a separate opinion. “Insisting otherwise is inconsistent with this Nation’s history and traditions, and would force the courts to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech,” he concluded. The reasoning for the secular-purpose, as opposed to religious representation, is because of a legal term called the Lemon Test named for the 1971 ruling in Lemon versus Kurtzman barring state funding for Catholic school teachers. It was subsequently cited in the federal appeal’s Court which ruled the Cross had to come down. Justice Neil Gorsuch averred that the Supreme Court had rarely relied on the Lemon Test which led him to muse that maybe it was time for the Supreme Court to “[T]hank Lemon for its services and send it on its way?” He continued in his separate opinion, “The monument here is clearly constitutional in light of the nation’s traditions. Although the plurality does not say it in as many words, the message of today’s decision for the lower courts must be this: whether a monument, symbol, or practice is old or new, apply not Lemon, because what matters when it comes to assessing a monument, symbol, or practice is not its age but its compliance with ageless principles.” This ruling is a step forward for Christianity, which is an excellent sign for Christian issues coming before the Court in the future. The secular clause requirement is a dangerous slippery slope to head down. In that, it could lead to the removal of all crosses off of all public land or the destruction or removal of anything deemed “religious” by the liberal left. With this holding, we can say for sure a cross represents Jesus’s sacrifice, but it embodies other critical American values as well.

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