Religious Symbols on Public Property

Christianity is an integral part of American culture. For most of US history, national identity was conflated with religious identity through family values, golden rule moralism, and the American dream. American Christianity arose in a post-Enlightenment context, and was concerned less with devotion and more with the systemic rites and rituals of Christian morality. Christian parables continue to permeate pop culture, literature, and even advertisement. Particularly in the late 70s’ and early 80’s, the Religious Right (focused on values of individual autonomy and virtuous citizenry) began to see growing religious diversity as a threat to the faith which built American democracy; a sentiment which President Trump largely steers to his advantage.

East of Washington D.C., a 40-foot cross overlooks the Bladensburg memorial for war veterans. Over $100,000 in tax-payers’ dollars were spent on substantial renovations of the cross. However, the cross is hotly-contested: the American Humanist Association argues that the cross is a callous gesture towards non-Christian veterans, who are overlooked. Furthermore, the Establishment clause of the American Constitution (and the 1971 Lemon v Kurtzman legal test) forbids the endorsement of a specific religious faith by a government entity. The Fourth Circuit Judge echoed this sentiment, and ruled that the memorial should be removed, reshaped, and/or remedied to appropriately honor all veterans who served. Judge Stephanie Thacker, in a 2-1 decision, held that “one simply cannot ignore the fact that for thousands of years the Latin cross has represented Christianity. Even in the memorial context, a Latin cross serves not simply as a generic symbol of death, but rather a Christian symbol of the death of Jesus Christ.”

The Supreme Court granted review of this case. In fact, this case has received the most cert-stage amicus filings in 2019; the Trump administration filed an amicus brief arguing that the Bladensburg cross should remain untouched (stating that the cross ‘conveys a secular message‘). A central part of the SCC arguments will be whether parties depict the memorial as commemorating 49 fallen soldiers from World War I or war veterans more generally, since it is possible that the 49 people were Christian. The case will take place before the Supreme Court on February 27, 2019. Key legal questions include whether the display and maintenance of the cross is unconstitutional; whether the expenditure of public funds to maintain the gross amount to excessive governmental entanglement with religion; what test should assess the constitutionality of a passive display incorporating religious symbolism.

This post was written by a CCLA-PBSC Rights Watch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.