(RNS) — An old, rugged cross that has stood on public land in a Washington, D.C., suburb for almost a century has been deemed unconstitutional by a federal court.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday (Oct. 18) that the so-called Peace Cross violates the establishment clause of the Constitution with "excessive religious entanglement."
“The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity,” the court wrote in a 33-page opinion. “And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds.”
The cross is planted in the town of Bladensburg, a short drive from the U.S. Capitol, at the intersection of a state road and a federal road, and commemorates World War I veterans.
But the three-member court was not unanimous in its ruling. The dissenting judge, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory, wrote in his opinion that the establishment clause does not require "purging" religion from the public sphere, but requires only governmental "neutrality" about religion.
"In my view," the chief justice wrote, the court's ruling " ... confuses maintenance of a highway median and monument in a state park with excessive religious entanglement."
The suit against the cross was brought by the American Humanist Association and was supported by the Center for Inquiry and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, three national secularist organizations.
The defendant was the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and it was supported by the American Legion with amici briefs from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and a number of state governments.
“The court correctly ruled that the cross unconstitutionally endorses Christianity and favors Christians to the exclusion of all other religious Americans,” Monica Miller, senior counsel from the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in a statement.
Roy Speckhardt, the AHA's executive director, said his organization isn't against veterans or religion.
"Instead of a Christian-only memorial, we want a universal monument that reflects the patriotic contributions of all our fallen heroes and heroines," he said in an email. "We stand side by side with religious folks of all stripes that don't want government to take sides on religion."
Federal courts have not been consistent regarding crosses on public land. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled a 5-foot cross in the Mojave National Preserve, also erected to honor veterans, did not violate the Constitution. But in 2012, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that said a cross on California's Mount Soledad violated the First Amendment.
The defendants in the Peace Cross case may appeal to the Supreme Court.