The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, which will determine whether a cross-shaped monument honoring those killed in WWI is a violation of the First Amendment.
The Bladensburg Peace Cross is a 40-foot stone cross erected in 1925 in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has performed regular maintenance around the monument since 1961, as it is located on a median in the middle of a public road. This, the American Humanist Association has argued, is entangling government unnecessarily with religion.
Atheist and secular campaigners have contend that because of the cruciform shape of the monument, its display and maintenance on public land constitutes a public affirmation of religion.
Under questioning by the justices, the Supreme Court heard Wednesday that there was a legitimate, historical context to the monument, and that the cross shape was commonly used at the time to honor those killed in wars.
A lawyer representing the park commission pointed out that the court had previously ruled that in certain cases religious symbols may be appropriate to for public display, depending on context.
Members of the court appeared to acknowledge that attitudes have changed since the Bladensburg Peace Cross was first erected.
“History counts,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, who suggested that while a similar monument would not be appropriate in the modern context, that did not mean that all past monuments should be taken down.
Justice Elena Kagan agreed that for many people, a cross is a “very natural way” for people to mourn those who have died, and that it carries a different meaning in the context of World War I.
There are numerous other cross-shaped monuments on public land, including at Arlington National Cemetery.
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