DENVER - In a 7-2 ruling handed down today, the United States Supreme Court upheld the right of communities to build and maintain war memorials that include crosses.
The case, The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, tested whether a cross-shaped World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, known as the Peace Cross, honoring 49 local men who gave their lives in the conflict, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
On October 18, 2017, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Peace Cross violates the First Amendment’s command that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Around the same time, the Town of Taos, New Mexico, was threatened with potential legal action by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The people of Taos have their own cross-shaped memorial honoring local soldiers who fought in the Battle of Bataan during World War II, including those who died on the Bataan Death March.
Mountain States Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief on behalf of the citizens of Taos in December 2018, urging the United States Supreme Court to allow the Bladensburg cross to stand, and to uphold the right of communities like Taos to build and maintain war memorials that include crosses.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito reasoned in today’s decision that “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.”
MSLF attorney David McDonald, who represents the town of Taos, commented on today’s decision: “This is a clear victory for the First Amendment and the principles of religious liberty this Republic was founded on. The Court today recognized that there’s a difference between a group of grieving mothers using religious imagery to honor their children’s sacrifices and the establishment of an official state-sponsored church. The people of Taos, like the people of Bladensburg, are not trying to install a theocratic dictatorship; they’re just trying to honor their lost loved ones.”
Because public memorials that include crosses are common, the Fourth Circuit’s mistaken decision had potential to impact memorials and communities throughout the country. The high court has rightly overturned the lower court and reaffirmed the right of communities to honor their war dead in the way they see fit.