Why We Sued Bladensburg, MD Over a 40-Foot Cross

The 40-feet high "Peace Cross" in Bladensburg, MD. The 40-feet high "Peace Cross" in Bladensburg, MD.

At the core of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is the principle that the government must not favor or prefer some religions over others, or religion over non-religion. No matter how small the preference may seem to some, particularly to adherents of the favored religion, the framers of the Constitution believed that “The breach of neutrality that is today a trickling stream may all too soon become a raging torrent.”

When the government erects an exclusively Christian monument on government property, it violates this central command of the Establishment Clause by sending a clear message that Christianity is the preferred religion over all others. When the religious monument is dedicated to fallen soldiers, it sends an even more egregious message that only Christian soldiers are worth memorializing. Non-Christian soldiers such as atheists and humanists are inherently excluded.

Such is the case with a cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, commonly known as the “Peace Cross,” which stands forty-feet high on a government-owned median between roadways. In addition to the obvious sectarian nature of the Latin cross, the Bladensburg cross was also erected with religious motives.

In 1918, the Prince George’s County Memorial Committee began to raise funds to construct the cross. Contributors signed the following pledge: “We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the Supreme Ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers who gave their all in the world war to make the world safe for democracy. Their mortal bodies have turned to dust, but their spirit lives to guide us through life in the way of godliness, justice and liberty. With our motto, ‘One God, One Country and one Flag,’ we contribute to this memorial cross commemorating the memory of those who have not died in vain.”

The Bladensburg cross was formally dedicated on July 12, 1925. As part of the dedication ceremonies, Representative Stephen W. Gambrill of the Fifth Maryland District delivered the dedication address, in which he stated: “You men of Prince Georges County fought for the sacred right of all to live in peace and security and by the token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary, let us keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.”1 An invocation was given by Rev. A.J. Carey, pastor of St. Jerome’s Catholic Church. Rev. B.P. Robertson, pastor of the First Baptist Church pronounced a benediction.

The Bladensburg cross thus carries an inherently religious message and creates the unmistakable appearance of honoring only Christian servicemen. Ruling that a similar monumental cross in California violated the Establishment Clause, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that by “claiming to honor all service members with a symbol that is intrinsically connected to a particular religion,” the government is sending a “stigmatic message to non-adherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members’” of the community. Trunk v. City of San Diego, 629 F.3d 1099, 1109, 1125 (9th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 132 S. Ct. 2535 (2012).

In seeking the removal of the Bladensburg cross, the American Humanist Association seeks only to eliminate this stigmatic message to non-adherents of Christianity. It urges the government to erect an inclusive monument that will honor all fallen soldiers, regardless of their faith.

[1] Legion Dedicates Bladensburg War Memorial Cross, The Washington Post; July 13, 1925.

  • Craig Howell

    As a native Washingtonian and a tour guide, I believe the history of the Peace Cross is a bit more complex. That land was originally on private land but then became government property relatively recently (1980s?) when they were reconstructing the road network around it. That’s when the First Amendment came into play. So one possible solution is to sell the land back to private owners. The Peace Cross has been a local landmark since I was a kid (and long before that), so physically moving it may not be the only or the best solution.

  • Doktor

    All it wud take is to remove horizontal arms…I’ll bring my cutting torch! (loving it peace by peace)

  • Richard VanMetter

    The cross should have been moved when the land became public. The cost could then have been part of the road improvement project. Leaving it on the median of a roadway still gives the appearance of government endorsement of religion, which I think is best avoided. I hope a religious organization will step up and make a new home for the cross. As a humanist, I would happily contribute to the cost of moving it.

  • meekinheritance

    I think both Craig Howell and Richard VanMetter have good points. Richard is right that it should have been moved when the land became public. But since it wasn’t, I hope that Xian organizations come forward with money from their bounteous coffers and buy the land, or pay to move it to a non-public location. And while there may be other options, I think Doktor is not completely off the mark, if the public has to foot the bill.

  • Cindeedrake

    I feel it is a historical monument and we need to respect the feelings of those who erected it at the time. If others want a non christian memorial for Veterans of WW l, then let them sue for the right to erect it in a public place.

    “It urges the government to erect an inclusive monument that will honor all fallen soldiers, regardless of their faith.”

    OK, I agree. From here on out…let the law be changed, so that all Veteran’s memorials are inclusive.

    I love history, even if it’s tainted.

    • Atheist Finch

      Keep in mind that that “history” you speak of includes the persecution of non-Christian soldiers, especially non-believers. My humanist ancestors in service did not appreciate it then, and the survivors do not appreciate feeling excluded still to this day. Let’s be sure that all memorials pay respect to all those who served. Don’t you think the non-Christian soldiers of the past are overdue for their share of respect?

  • PC Protector

    This time you’re going to have a real fight on your hands. First of all, your information is incorrect! The Peace Cross was NOT erected by the government and was NOT erected on government land and WAS erected in a time when there were not so many haters in our country!!!!! I will not get into the religious discussion because that’s YOUR excuse to destroy a monument built to honor our fallen warriors from WWI! You can have your views!!! So can we. I find this group just as disgusting as you seem to find our fallen heroes! Shame on you! This monument has stood in this spot for almost 100 years and will continue to stand…..WITH it’s current configuration!

  • StopBIGgovernment

    Your suit should be thrown out as like most Liberals you never have the facts. The Government did not erect this on government property. The American Legion did on private property. Get over yourself and stop with the petty BS. It’s been there for 94 years without an issue and now a bunch of wackos want it gone?

  • dawn

    Hopefully, you, (non-Christian/non-religion folks) will NEVER need the the Red Cross/FEMA in a crisis … and never set foot in a Government owned building in DC, or cemetery, memorial, or drive and inadvertently notice the Washington Monument in DC. That must cause you to suffer extreme pain and agony? Peace Cross is a war memorial, not a “Christian” memorial. Prove that that the 49 men named, were not in any way, shape or form, of anyway religious/atheist. Peace Cross is a WAR MEMORIAL … not a “christian” symbol. The “cross” was a pagan symbol …

  • J5

    Ill buy the plot of land it sits on to make it private just so you all can’t tear it down. It’s not about religion, it’s about “One nation, Under God” whether you like it or not. Things offend me in this world, but do I run around suing people acting like an immature teenager? No. It’s called growing up and leaving things the way our founding fathers meant it to be. You all preach tolerance and equality, but when it comes to the tolerance of other people’s religion or beliefs, there is none.

    • Charles Mumford

      J5 – did you even read the article above about WHY the cross should be moved? The reasoning is legally sound and we are a nation of laws. Secular laws.

      • Jason Stansell

        “secular” meaning by the people. By the people implying whoever was around at the time the law was made. Further, when the crowd demographic changes, so might the laws. And changing rules do not make for a fair or consistent game. Constant change is very close to the definition of chaos.

        I know, its the best we have. I just like pointing out the end game of it.

        • Tress

          no, not “secular meaning by the people”..that is not even almost what that word means…secular; adjective; not spiritual : of or relating to the physical world and not the spiritual world
          : not religious
          : of, relating to, or controlled by the government rather than by the church… we separate religion and government for a very good reason. if you dont want the government coming in and influencing your church or religious doctrine, then make it a point to keep your religion and church out of the government.

      • Julie

        “One Nation,Under God.”

        • Julie

          “One Nation,Under God.” Heads up Charles….We are living in the end times right Now…God bless you brother. ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus’ <3 Peace

    • Rhett J D.

      Do you bother to read the real reason? No never as i have come to find out you just complain without knowing.

    • Heidi Hanson

      The cross is not tolerant of non Christian beliefs. Do you really think All Americans are Christians?

      • Julie

        Heidi~All people are Children of God. Christianity is a religion (created by man).Jesus (God in the flesh) did not come into the world to make a religion but to die for our sins to save us all from Hell.God gave us all free will to believe what we want to believe.But if we believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord and confess it with our mouth, we will be saved. God bless you Heidi,I hope that helps you understand..

  • Rusty Ehler

    Ignorant people, its a memorial to our military heroes! The fact that its a cross is almost irrelevant when you think of it that way. When it was built, it wasn’t offensive, it was a great monument to great men. Some people are offended by almost anything these days. It’s just ridiculous, if you must, buy the land for the purpose of keeping the monument, or move it. But I think we have better things to spend our money on, and more important issues to pursue.

  • jim biggs

    Just Grandfather old monuments.There apart of history We all agree that Slavery was bad but we don’t tear down old historic slave quarters.We hate wars but don’t tear down old forts.Above the supreme court it says IN GOD WE TRUST it was not taken down because it is a historic part of our past.enforce the rules on new monuments and move forward.

    • Rhett J D.

      In god we trust was put on our money not even 50 years ago its a big joke

      • Jason Stansell

        Our money itself (debt money) IS a joke.

        You give up an unrecoverable asset (your labor)…and in exchange you get paper representing the debt obligation of another. ideally, your get back another secure asset for the asset you gave up. But no, you get back a promise. A promise that is diluted by more money creation as a stated rate annually according to the FED.

        So to save your previously spent labor (the only asset you really have, limited in nature) you have to find a way for it (your labor now represented in decaying limitless money) to grow at a rate exceeding the rate of planned decay. You have to invest it, and risk it.

        Its a forced participation system. Personal freedom is no where near the design of this system. If you have a base level Maslow hierarchy need (food, housing, education, etc) you have to go into debt to get it. Debt infinitely created by a entity whose liabilities (federal reserve notes) are NOT an obligation to provide value or make you whole in anyway. They buy our labor with nothing.

        • Jason Stansell

          Which is why those crusty old Republicans and Randians have no argument when they say minimum wage laws increases will kill us all. Its a push down monetary system, and all the money itself is intercepted via ownership and equity claims by the small percentage of rich in our system (see 1%, see current wealth gap). When the money is created at a top level at a whim, and the current rich can write laws/buy congressmen/buy equity on productive labor to capture the bulk of that flow that they could not otherwise according to their own labor….well then its just a system of enslavement.

          Sorry to harp on it Rhett. I know its off topic from your OP. Money has been a longtime mystery to me, so I looked into it a lot, and have a lot of thoughts about it.

    • Willi

      In god we trust was only recently added and has nothing to do with our roots.

    • Heidi Hanson

      Man cannot serve both God and mammon. I find that Motto that replaced our original Motto “E Pluribus Unum” to be very sacrilegious. It says we worship money and while that may actually be true, I find it offensive.

  • Jason Stansell

    I find it ironic that we rip away formerly erected symbols of religion, beliefs, culture etc., and the at the same time mandate diversity appreciation be taught. Its like in one case we tell people the must look at and participate in diversity (differences), but then at the same time tear down evidence that we are different.

    • Willi

      You’ve missed the point. The reason they want it moved off government land is because it disrespects diversity by holding one religion higher than all.

      • disqus_JhMcPgRNCt

        Actually, it does not.. I don’t see any diversity in any of it. Its all an argument over who believes or does not believe in an invisible thing. The people who furnished the money for the cross and built it had one thing in their mind: Remembrance of the fallen. That was the way they did it at the time. Yes it could have been an obelisk or even a big ol rock. They chose what they did because it was simply what was done at the time.
        I just saw a video that was up the alley of what you guys seem to be all about. The Libyans destroying the cross and grave markers in a cemetery from Montgomery. I don’t think they liked the cross much either. Ask yourself this: Why do you REALLY feel the need to make a big deal about a non-issue? Whats in it for YOU other than a quick sound bite and the ability to act like a Home Owners Association?
        Then, when you see the sad waste of time go for the big ones like getting us out of the middle east, helping with hunger, the homeless, the fact that kids are being destroyed by over priced colleges… So many things to champion beyond an old memorial that causes no harm to society at all.

  • disqus_JhMcPgRNCt

    Just curious from someone who is a bit more tolerant of others beliefs. When the Taliban was blowing up the old statues what did you think? Why was it necessary to destroy history? When the Germans in the 30s and 40s removed markings including tombstones from a religion they didnt like… What was that?
    Why do people feel the need to suppress others? This is what I see when groups of people get together and start these wasteful sad lawsuits. It just doesnt matter but you HAVE to get your way. Get enough of you ‘Humanists’ together and suddenly we are burning books and clearing out anything remotely religious in a library no better than the generation that blocked works of literature and burned them in the past.

    To put it simply you are bullies who are using a law to force things into your agenda.

    • Willi

      I agree – why do people feel the need to suppress others….. Like why did they feel the need to make everyone who died in WW1 conform to Christian symbols? They weren’t all Christian.

      • disqus_JhMcPgRNCt

        Very foolish answer. Have you ever looked at the actual gravestones? They are not all crosses o Jesus mounts. I am not a subscriber to this group of beliefs but I do feel that there is a huge subversive element that is trying to do its best to tear into anyone and anything that they dont like.

        Strangely its looking like a repeat of what happened to groups in the past… Where did those druids go?

      • Pete

        If the Religious Right hadn’t turned religious decisions into political ones. There would be fewer atheists and less atheist freak outs. A strong atheist movement in this country is the fruit of the Religious Right.

        • Julie

          True Pete.

      • bdd44m5

        Willi take the long historical look at the American culture of the time the cross was proposed and erected. You can not mold the future by destroying the past.

    • Julie

      Thank you.Well put! God bless…

  • Al Jones

    To remove Peace Cross would be to remove an important slice of history and is an insult to those local vets who gave their lives in WWI. . . .When will this inane trend of placating the insensitive desires of a few over the wishes of the majority.. . . Why is patriotism such a ‘four letter word’? Has anyone in this ‘humanist’ organization ever served in our armed forces? What sacrifices have anyone involved given to place their selfish wants over the memories of the fallen?

  • bdd44m5

    There comes a time, when no matter how many times i have stood on the constitution for religious neutrality, as America purposefully was established as a secular state; I find myself disagreeing with some who hold the similar position as I.

    This is one of those times. If your organization, rather than look to the present would look to the cultural and historical significance of this monument to veterans erected almost a century ago, you may find that you have failed in rule #1. Choose your battles wisely. I am all for trying to turn the country back to an all inclusive non exclusionary non government intervention in religion of any kind state, I am not for pissing on the work set in place 4.5 generations ago.

    Where was your voice when the nutjob preacher Jones from FL. burned Qu’urans and came to Dearborn MI a number of times in an attempt to incite anti Arab hatreds for the free practice of their culture and religion? That is a dialog worth having. Not one about a symbol that was erected long before any reader was born and now has become a landmark within the confines of a Maryland town.

    What is humanism anyway? Is it not based on the live and let live philosophy? haven’t there been many great humanist philosophers who espoused just that? Your objection is that this cross sits on a roadway median owned and maintained by a government entity. My question is so what, how does it harm anyone? If you really choose to wage this particular war then get the median opened up for any religion, including the satanic ones to erect a memorial to veterans, as that is the point of the cross, not religion but a memorial to veterans, of which i am one.

    has it occurred to you that there are far more pressing issues in America having to do with government sponsored intrusion in secularism than a simple symbol for fallen soldiers? Your fight should be centered on the congress where the religious right is pulling us all down a deep slope of hatred. Something few crosses or Stars of David have ever done. But now on the floor of the US congress some are trying to actively pass laws against certain religions, specifically Islam. There is your battle not some Maryland town that if you did win, you would destroy a veterans memorial, many of which have religious symbology on them. But then you would also turn a tide of indifference against you accomplishing nothing but more division in a nation already severly divided.

  • Reasonable humanist

    Sometimes to be not seen as antagonistic or ridiculous, something like this should be left. I read that the American Legion was who put this up. If this was originally on private land, you are being unreasonable in wanting to remove it. I am not a Christian or any other religion.

  • Julie

    The Bladenburg Cross-Honoring “Children of God”
    In which we All are!Weather you agree with it or Not.
    Its Not about Religion ~Its about TRUTH.God bless
    Bladenburg MD <3