Humanists Going All the Way: AHA to Defend Church-State Separation at the Supreme Court

On Friday, the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments from the American Humanist Association regarding the unconstitutionality of a forty-foot-tall Christian cross maintained on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland. This towering cross, which is intended to be a World War I memorial, dominates the center of a busy intersection and is the first thing one sees entering the town. And it’s owned, maintained, and funded by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), a branch of the state government. In the years since the initial filing, the AHA won at every appellate level, and now the case is before the highest court in the country.

In June both the American Legion and the local government separately petitioned the US Supreme Court to issue a writ of certiorari, to hear the case, and to overturn the Fourth Circuit’s ruling. The confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh likely played a significant role in the Supreme Court’s process for determining which cases to hear, as the court postponed the discussion dates for a number of potential cases (including this one) until after he was confirmed.

The 40-feet high cross in Bladensburg, MD.

The AHA filed oppositions to both petitions, citing over thirty federal cases finding crosses unconstitutional and highlighting concurring opinions from Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. The AHA’s briefs also pointed out that the government has already spent $117,000 in public funds on the cross and has earmarked an additional $100,000 for necessary repairs, which may be futile. In an email an MNCPPC official noted that the Christian cross may very well crumble on its own, writing that “repairs to the structure have not proven sustainable or helpful in the long term” and suggesting the commission start from scratch. Additionally, recent government records refer to the cross as a “public eyesore” and a “safety hazard.”

When the funds to erect the cross were collected, donors 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 explicitly Christian nature of the pledge and the monument itself suggest that government was using its coercive power to further the interests of a particular religion. This strong case, supported by significant precedent, positions the American Humanist Association to move forward to the Supreme Court with confidence. The Christian monolith fails to represent the pluralistic nature of religion among veterans, and among all Americans. Rather than continue to waste taxpayer dollars repairing an exclusively Christian symbol, the government should use that money to construct a new memorial atop the historic platform that will honor all veterans. As the Richmond-based US Court of Appeals said, it’s time to remove it, reshape it, or reassign its ownership.