The First Amendment forbids the "establishment of religion" by the government. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a 40-foot-tall cross that has been standing on public land for more than 90 years easily passed muster under that constitutional provision.
The origins of American Legion v. American Humanist Association date back to the aftermath of World War I. In 1919, a group of citizens in Prince George's County, Maryland, decided to raise money for a private memorial in honor of the local war dead. They broke ground the same year, and the project was completed in 1925. Known as the Bladensburg Peace Cross, the towering memorial was dedicated to county residents "who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world."
But the cross stands on land that today is owned and maintained by a state agency. In 2014, the American Humanist Association, a group devoted to the "defense of civil liberties and secular governance," filed suit in federal court, arguing that the presence and upkeep of the Bladensburg Peace Cross on public property is a clear-cut violation of the Establishment Clause. The group demanded that the memorial be taken down.
Seven members of the Supreme Court rejected that position. "The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent," wrote Justice Samuel Alito. Yes, the monument has religious significance. But it is also "a historical landmark" as well as "a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices," he said. To remove it now, after it has stood for nearly a century, "would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment."
Two members of the Court sided with the humanists. "As I see it," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content." Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined Ginsburg's dissent.
The pair stopped short of calling for the cross's destruction. "Recognizing that a Latin cross does not belong on a public highway or building does not mean the monument must be 'torn down,'" Ginsburg wrote. "The violation may be cured by relocating the monument to private land or by transferring ownership of the land and monument to a private party."
While the Bladensburg Cross survived, the Court will still have to grapple with the constitutionality of other sectarian monuments that lack its particular historical pedigree.