Can a Religious Symbol Serve a Primarily Secular Purpose?

August 23, 2019

The 40-foot “Peace Cross” in Bladensburg, Maryland was erected almost a century ago in remembrance of fallen soldiers in World War I. It now stands on government-owned land at a busy interchange and is maintained by a Maryland parks commission. Pointing to the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from making laws establishing a religion or favoring one over another, the American Humanist Association charges that the memorial is offensive to soldiers who are not Christian. They want it to be relocated to private land or redesigned so that it be no longer in the shape of a religious symbol. The Fourth Circuit Court agreed, ruling that the size and location of the cross amount to government endorsement of Christianity. The American Legion, defender of the monument, maintains that it has been used throughout its history as a secular site honoring all veterans, and the shape of the monument was chosen not for religious reasons but to resemble the grave markers for fallen American soldiers in cemeteries overseas. Supporters of the cross say that if this cross is deemed unconstitutional then crosses throughout the nation will have to be removed, including the Ground Zero 9/11 Memorial and the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice in Arlington National Cemetery. In June 2019 the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 7 to 2 decision that the cross honoring WWI veterans may continue to stand on state-owned land; it does not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The majority opinion argues that the cross has a secular purpose—historic remembrance—and therefore it does not violate constitutionally mandated church-state separation.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: In a plural society, can a religious symbol from a specific religious tradition (in this case, the long-standing majority tradition) function in a generic way? What becomes of powerful religious symbols when they are given public meanings that are diluted and attenuated from their original meanings? Does the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Bladensburg Cross case create workable precedent for use by the lower courts in evaluating these kinds of claims?

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Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, courtesy of Executive Office of the Governor of Maryland