There is welcome news today from the Supreme Court.
A 94-year-old war memorial in Bladensburg County, Maryland, can remain in place, despite the demands of the American Humanist Association to tear it down.
Also known as the “Peace Cross,” the memorial was commissioned and built by the American Legion and mothers of the 49 local men killed serving this country in World War I.
Originally built on private land, the 40-foot-tall structure and the land upon which it rests were taken over by the local government 50 years ago for roadway expansion needs. It now stands in the middle of a traffic circle.
Supreme Court decisions are often long and academic, so here is the ruling in shirt-sleeve English:
In a 7-2 decision, the justices found that the cross in the context of a war memorial has not just a religious connotation, but a secular one as well.
The Court held that under those circumstances, the memorial did not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against the “establishment of religion.”
Of course it doesn’t.
Neither the memorial, nor the government’s need to acquire it, remotely signals an attempt to push or endorse Christianity as a state religion. That should be obvious to anyone who understands the Memorial’s historical background.
At the same time, the wider the margin of a Supreme Court ruling these days, the more narrow the decision – and the Bladensburg finding from the High Court produced some interesting concurring statements.
Given the complexity of the case, I asked my friend and colleague Bruce Hausknecht, Focus’ legal analyst, to break down the decision. Here are his observations:
Four of the justices (Justice Alito, who wrote the opinion, Roberts, Breyer and Kavanaugh) say the Lemon test (which is used to determine whether or not a law violates the Establishment Clause) doesn’t fit these kinds of cases where historical significance is involved.
But Justice Clarence Thomas goes further and says the Lemon test should be abolished altogether.
Justice Gorsuch and Justice Thomas say the suit should have been dismissed for lack of standing by the Humanist Association. They don’t like the so-called “offended-observer” status often used to allow these challenges.
Justice Kagan filed a concurring op concurring in part, saying she would keep the “Lemon test” alive.
As part of the majority, Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion suggesting the Establishment Clause doesn’t even apply to the states, and even if it did, there’s no coercion here.
Also part of the majority decision, Justice Gorsuch filed his own concurring op that was joined by Justice Thomas.
As expected, Justice Ginsburg filed a dissent, joined by Justice Sotomayor.
Thank you, Bruce!
Indeed, there is a concerted effort today on the part of some to scrub the country’s public squares of any religious symbols, and I’m glad the Supreme Court wrote in favor of retaining them. In the words of Justice Alito, “The Religion Clauses of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, & the presence of the Bladensburg Cross … where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.”
Justice Alito concluded:
“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. 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 honor all veterans and their sacrifices for 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.”
That’s an abundance of common sense in a world that desperately needs it.