The Mythology of a Cross: A Dozen Bladensburg Claims Debunked

The Bladensburg Cross (Photo courtesy Rob Boston)

1. Myth: The Bladensburg cross was originally placed on private property.

Fact: The cross was built on the Town of Bladensburg’s land with the approval and involvement of the town’s commissioners in 1919. The Town of Bladensburg gave American Legion Post 3 the “care” of the land and the cross after it was erected (but left unfinished in 1922). The town made clear that the land and the cross would revert back to Bladensburg if Post 3 disbanded.

2. Myth: The government only owns the land for traffic and safety reasons.

Fact: The Town of Bladensburg deliberately chose to showcase the cross by approving its erection on prominent town-owned property. The cross stood unfinished, but in cruciform, when the Town deeded it to Legion Post 3 for its “care” in 1922. In 1935 the governor asked the State Roads Commission to prevent the “desecration” of the cross, as it was threatened by the “proposed erection of a service station on the property.” A senator suggested that condemning the property would prevent such “desecration.”  

And in 1960, the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission—a bi-county agency funded by Prince George’s and Montgomery counties—acquired the cross from the State Roads Commission for the purposes of “the future repair and maintenance of the monument.” It is unclear if the land the cross sits on was ever needed for traffic and safety reasons. Furthermore, any claim that the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission’s interest is limited to ensuring the public’s safety cannot be squared with its choice to rededicate the cross as a government war memorial after spending $100,000 on its renovation in 1985.

3. Myth: The Bladensburg cross is a memorial to forty-nine men who died in World War I.

Fact: In 1985 the government rededicated the cross as a memorial to honor all US veterans of all wars.

4. Myth: The Bladensburg cross is in a cemetery.

Fact: The Bladensburg cross is in the center of a traffic island in one of the busiest intersections in the county. No one is buried near the cross.

5. Myth: When a Latin cross is used as a war memorial, it honors all veterans, irrespective of their religion.

Fact: Using a Christian cross as a war memorial does not make the cross secular. It makes the war memorial religious. The Latin cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity and Christianity alone. There is no evidence that any other religious group embraces the Latin cross as a symbol for their death and sacrifice. To many religions, the Latin cross is not just a symbol of Christianity but is also a symbol of their religious oppression.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others. The forty-foot Bladensburg cross, standing alone on public land and maintained by the government (with over $217,000 of taxpayer money invested in renovations and maintenance), obviously endorses Christianity to the exclusion of all other religions. The Bladensburg cross sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion—it appears that only Christian soldiers are worthy of veneration. It certainly does not honor the 3,500 Jewish soldiers who died in World War I and the countless other soldiers of all faith groups who have died in service since.

6. Myth: The American Humanist Association wants the Bladensburg cross torn down.

Fact: Due to the government’s neglect and failure to make necessary repairs, as well as the commercial and traffic pollutants and a complex array of other variable stresses caused by its location, the cross is already falling down on its own. The American Humanist Association wants the monument moved to private property or modified to appropriately honor all veterans.

7. Myth: The Latin cross is a common symbol in World War I memorials.

Fact: Only a handful of World War I memorials out of thousands use the Latin cross, and most of those are found in cemeteries or on private property.  The vast majority of World War I memorials consist of the secular doughboy. While the Latin cross was used to mark the individual graves of Christian soldiers in World War I cemeteries overseas, the Star of David was used to mark the individual graves of Jewish soldiers.

Federal courts have uniformly recognized that a Christian cross (sometimes called a Latin cross) is sectarian and the preeminent symbol of Christianity. Every federal court to address the issue has concluded that the Latin cross does not possess an ancillary meaning as a secular or nonreligious war memorial.

8. Myth: Only atheists object to the Bladensburg cross.

Fact: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Native- American, and other non-Christian veterans and communities object to this Christian-only government war memorial.  Many Christians feel that the government’s use of the cross as a symbol of war is blasphemous.

9. Myth: The American Humanist Association is challenging this cross because they hate veterans.

Fact: The American Humanist Association is challenging this cross because we want the government to honor all veterans regardless of their religion. Equal sacrifices deserve equal honor. Veterans of all religious backgrounds and none sacrificed for our country—the AHA is attempting to ensure that the government honors them all.

The county can easily honor veterans without maintaining and displaying a Christian cross. Since the American Revolution, thousands of government-owned war memorials have been dedicated, and most do not use any religious iconography. These memorials are constitutional and inclusive, recognizing the service of all veterans regardless of their faith.

10. Myth: If the Bladensburg cross comes down, hundreds of other war memorial crosses will have to come down too.

Fact: No other memorial is threatened. Every Establishment Clause case is fact-specific, and religious monuments are judged by their unique context and circumstances. In fact, there are only a handful of freestanding cross war memorials on government land, and most are in cemeteries. There is no other war memorial cross as prominent and government-sponsored as the Bladensburg cross. We encourage you to read pages 93-98 of our brief to learn more about the differences between the Bladensburg cross and other memorial crosses.

It should go without saying that individual headstones are not threatened either. Arlington National Cemetery has gravestones that include crosses, Stars of David, and symbols from many different religions, including the happy humanist symbol. This case does not threaten those religious symbols in any way. No reasonable observer would conclude that the government is endorsing Christianity just because an individual’s gravestone includes a cross. That’s not the case, however, with the forty-foot Bladensburg cross standing alone in the middle of a busy intersection.

11. Myth: This is just a cross-shaped memorial.

Fact: The Bladensburg cross is not just “cross-shaped”—it is a forty-foot-tall Latin cross! It was an intentionally designed Christian symbol. In 1919, the Town of Bladensburg approved the erection of a “mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the Bible.” “Calvary” refers to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The committee overseeing the effort was aptly named the “Calvary Cross Memorial” committee. The cross was dedicated on July 12, 1925, at a public ceremony led by government officials and Christian clergy. The keynote speaker, Maryland Representative Stephen Gambrill, reaffirmed this cross’s distinctly Christian meaning, declaring: “by the token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary, let us keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.”

12. Myth: An older cross monument is less likely to endorse Christianity than a newer Cross monument.

Fact: On the contrary, as the Fourth Circuit in our case ruled, the longer a constitutional violation like this persists, the greater the harm to non-Christian residents forced to encounter the cross year after year. Read pages 32-33, 56-57, and 63-67 of our brief to learn more!