Weathering the Storm: AHA Shelters the Constitution amid International Vitriol

You’ve likely already read in this publication, if not elsewhere, about the American Humanist Association’s recent court victory in the Bladensburg cross case. A panel of judges from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a World War I memorial on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland, is unconstitutional because it’s a towering, forty-foot cross and therefore endorses Christianity and favors Christians to the exclusion of Americans of other religions or no religion.

The decision has garnered massive media attention from local television news stations (the cross is in the Washington, DC/Baltimore metro area) to national publications including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the alt-right news organization Breitbart, Fox News, and even Voice of America. More than 800 media articles mention the case to date, and that number doesn’t even take into consideration the massive social media attention. Many thousands of people have reacted to and commented on the case just on AHA’s Facebook page alone.

The next legal step, should the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission choose to pursue it, could either be a request for the full bench of Fourth Circuit Court judges to hear the case or to bring it directly to the Supreme Court of the United States. A recent move by the Supreme Court in a New Mexico case could offer some insight into how the Bladensburg case might fare there.  Earlier in October, the justices refused to hear the New Mexico case regarding a statue of the Ten Commandments outside of City Hall. The refusal let stand a lower court ruling that ordered the city to remove the monument. Courts around the country have ruled in contradictory ways about religious monuments: a poster of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse was found constitutional while an Arkansas monument on the grounds of a public building was deemed unconstitutional. (The Arkansas statue was later shattered when a religious zealot—not a nontheist—deliberately ran into it with a truck.)

Of course, as is common when a controversial story receives this much media attention, the American Humanist Association has heard from large numbers of people telling us how wrong we are to pursue this case. We’ve had calls, emails, and social media comments in large numbers. Leaving aside the death threats, promises of violence and destruction, and the many calls for us to burn in hell, the comments offer insight into those who would protect the cross statue.

Many comments are focused on the fact that the cross is a World War I memorial and accuse the AHA and the court of wanting to cover up the nation’s history.  For instance, one commenter simply railed, “Veteran Haters!” despite the fact that our suit does not request that the monument be destroyed.

Another described our defense of the First Amendment by saying, “Your group is a spineless organization that has zero respect for the pillars that this nation was founded upon.” Presumably he hasn’t heard of the Establishment Clause.

Yet another commenter said, “Way to spit in the face of the men who fought in WWI.” All of this ignores the fact that there are plenty of war memorials that aren’t Christian crosses. As AHA’s Executive Director Roy Speckhardt said on the local news: “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is very powerful and it contains no religious symbols.”

Again, contrary to what has been published in many media reports, the AHA has not asked for the monument to be destroyed, nor did the judicial order require it to be destroyed. The monument could be moved to private land, or altered so that it was no longer in the shape of a cross.

Other comments seem to suggest that we just shouldn’t make waves.  One person all the way from Canada emailed, “The kind of action that you took in Maryland is not only unnecessary it unnecessarily antagonizes everyone, eradicates historical monuments for no reason…To demolish these old memorials is like a knife in the heart to many.”

Other commenters completely missed the point in a different way—by accusing us of infringing on their rights to propagate religious symbols. “When are you people going to stop stepping on Christian rights? We don’t harass you for choosing not to believe…I don’t stomp on your rights, please stop stomping on mine.”  Of course, this ignores the entire point of the suit: that a large Christian cross on public property does stomp on the rights of non-Christians.

Although, sadly, the angry hate mail is prolific, others have reached out to thank the AHA for defending their rights. One supporter wrote:

Thank you for your efforts to remove the Bladensburg cross. I live about five minutes from there and pass it at least once a week. As a resident, tax payer, and non-Christian, this display of overt Christianity on public grounds has bothered me since we moved here a few years ago. I don’t see how it can be anything other than an in-your-face display of religion. Further, as a member of the LGBTQ community, I have come to view the Christian cross as a symbol of oppression and when that symbol is wielded by the state, it makes me feel like a second-class citizen. It is an unwelcome reminder of a faith that at least in part has defined itself as antagonistic to the LGBTQ community. I’m sure you are getting a deluge of hate mail, but know that your work is appreciated.

Another echoed that sentiment, writing:

Thank you for your work in opposition of the cross in Bladensburg. I’m a citizen of Prince George’s County, Maryland, in the city of Hyattsville, next to Bladensburg. I have opposed the cross from my first day in PG County, and am grateful that you are standing up for the separation of church and state. I see the cross as a physical sign of Christian privilege. My opposition to it is rooted in a desire for equity of non-Christian Marylanders (including me and my husband), who should neither have their taxes nor names used to support it.

These allies, and the others like them—including our plaintiffs in this case—are the people for whom we do this kind of work.