World

U.S. Supreme Court says large cross in Maryland can stay on public land

A First World War memorial in the shape of a 12-metre-high cross can continue to stand on public land in Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The case had been closely watched because it involves the place of religious symbols in public life

Visitors on Feb. 13 walk around the Maryland Peace Cross dedicated to soldiers of the First World War in Bladensburg, Md. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the cross can stay put on public land. (Kevin Wolf/Associated Press)

A First World War memorial in the shape of a 12-metre-high cross can continue to stand on public land in Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The justices, in ruling 7-2 in favour of the cross's backers, concluded the nearly 100-year-old memorial's presence on a grassy highway median doesn't violate the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favouring one religion over others.

The case had been closely watched because it involves the place of religious symbols in public life. Defenders of the cross in Bladensburg had argued a ruling against them could have implications for hundreds of war memorials that use crosses to commemorate soldiers who died.

"The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent," Justice Samuel Alito wrote.

"For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honour all veterans and their sacrifices to our nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark. For many of these people, destroying or defacing the cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment. For all these reasons, the cross does not offend the Constitution."

For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.- Samuel Alito, U.S. Supreme Court justice

Two of the court's liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, both of whom are Jewish, joined their conservative colleagues in ruling for the cross.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is also Jewish, dissented, with Ginsburg writing that "the principal symbol of Christianity around the world should not loom over public thoroughfares, suggesting official recognition of that religion's paramountcy." In all, seven of the nine justices wrote to explain their views in opinions that totalled over 80 pages.

Challengers to the cross included three area residents and the D.C.-based American Humanist Association, which includes atheists and agnostics. They argued the cross, in a suburb near the nation's capital, should be moved to private property or modified into a non-religious monument such as a slab or obelisk.

Defenders included the American Legion, which raised money to build the monument honouring area residents who died in the First World War. Other backers included the Trump administration and Maryland officials who took over maintenance of the cross nearly 60 years ago to preserve it and address traffic safety concerns.

Maryland officials had argued the cross, sometimes called the Peace Cross, doesn't violate the Constitution because it has a secular purpose and meaning.

'A win for America': Republican senator

In the past, similar monuments have met with a mixed fate at the high court.

On the same day in 2005, for example, the court upheld a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol while striking down Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses.

After those rulings and others the Supreme Court has been criticized for being less than clear in explaining how to analyze so-called passive displays such as Maryland's cross, that are challenged as violating the Constitution's establishment clause.

 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, hailed the ruling, saying he was honoured "to help lead this fight on behalf of our veterans."

Vice-President Mike Pence said in a tweet the ruling "honours our fallen heroes and the symbols of faith that commemorate their sacrifice," while Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy of California and his minority whip, Steve Scalise, also praised the decision.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the decision a failure to separate church and state.

"Though deeply disappointing and wrong, the court's ruling was narrow and based on the circumstances surrounding this particular monument, which is nearly 100 years old," the ACLU said in a statement.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now