In a decision on Monday that preserves the thanks of a nation for the sacrifice of Americans who died in World War I, Maryland federal judge Deborah Chasanow (a Clinton appointee) threw out a lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association over a forty-foot-tall war memorial that is almost 100 years old.
The monument, built in the shape of a Latin cross by the American Legion and located at the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, was first dedicated in 1925, although the effort to raise funds to build the memorial started in late 1918. Since 1960, the monument has been owned and maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Prior to that time it was owned and maintained by the American Legion.
The monument is part of a local Veterans Memorial Park that also contains memorials to veterans and those who died in World War II, Pearl Harbor, Korea and Vietnam, 9/11, the War of 1812, and the Battle of Bladensburg. The Bladensburg Cross has a plaque that says the “Memorial Cross is dedicated to the heroes of Prince George’s County Maryland who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world” and has a quotation from President Woodrow Wilson. Four words are inscribed on each face of the cross: “valor, endurance, courage, devotion.”
The lawsuit was filed by the American Humanist Association, as well as several individuals who were apparently “offended” that they had to drive by the monument and see it every day on a very busy highway. They claimed that because the World War I memorial is in the shape of a cross, “ownership, maintenance and prominent display of the Monument on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was denied permission to file an amicus brief on the side of the plaintiffs. The Liberty Institute and Jones Day represented the defendants.
In her Nov. 30 order, Chasanow granted summary judgment to the defendants, concluding that the monument does not violate the Constitution. The court found that the “vast majority” of events and gatherings at the monument and the Veterans Memorial Park have been in “commemoration of Memorial Day or Veterans Day.”
The fact that the plaintiffs in this case were really grasping to turn this war memorial into a religious issue was demonstrated by the fact that the only evidence they could dig up on that issue was a “Washington Post column indicating that there were at least three Sunday religious services held at the Monument in 1931.” The trivialness of their claims is shown by their having to go back in time more than 80 years to find even a small handful of religious services.
Additionally, the plaintiffs tried to dirty the water by falsely alleging that the Ku Klux Klan was somehow involved with the monument. The federal judge inserted a special footnote to point out that the claim was not supported by any evidence; the “[p]laintiffs’ suggestion of some connection [to the KKK] is simply wrong.”
The court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show a violation of the Establishment Clause under either of the two tests derived from two different U.S. Supreme Court cases, Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) and Van Orden v. Perry (2005). Judge Chasanow said that both tests “require the [c]ourt to inquire into the nature, context, and history” of the monument. Applying both tests in this case “lead[s] to the same result”—that the memorial is not an unconstitutional display.
According to the judge, although the “Latin cross is undeniably a religious symbol,” the courts have recognized that “displaying a cross to honor fallen soldiers is a legitimately secular purpose, and does not always promote a religious message.” In fact, “in the period immediately following World War I, [building a cross] could also be motivated by the ‘the sea of crosses’ marking graves of American servicemen who died overseas.” The Bladensburg Cross “evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”
The Commission is driven by a secular purpose: “maintaining and displaying a ‘historically significant war memorial’ that has honored fallen soldiers for almost a century.” Nothing in the record showed that the Commission’s work “is driven by a religious purpose whatsoever.” The record showed that even “the purpose of the private citizens who were behind the Monument’s construction 90 years ago was a predominantly secular one.”
In a sharp rejoinder to the unreasonable attitude of the plaintiffs, Chasanow said that no “reasonable observer” would view “the Monument as having the effect of impermissibly endorsing religion.”
Additionally, “the Monument has gone unchallenged for decades,” a fact that clearly shows how few individuals were “likely to have understood the monument as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to promote or endorse religion.”
The plaintiffs in this case, in essence, wanted to destroy a 90-year-old memorial to fallen soldiers based on thoughtless, vain, and shallow motives that are an insult to the sacrifices of brave Americans. If they had taken the time to read one of the most famous poems of World War I, perhaps they would understand the symbolic importance of the cross for the fallen. It was written by Canadian doctor John McCrae on May 3, 1915, for a friend and fellow soldier who died in the Second Battle of Ypres:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields”
Hans von Spakovsky is an authority on a wide range of issues—including civil rights, civil justice, the First Amendment, immigration, the rule of law and government reform—as a senior legal fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and manager of the think tank’s Election Law Reform Initiative.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.