Law & Government

Does This War Memorial Violate the First Amendment? 


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.

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  1. RBG should be made to dig up all those religious symbols in Arlington Cemetery.

    New symbols should be prevented, but anything 25 years or older should remain.

    1. Don't give them any ideas.

  2. In 2014, the American Humanist Association, a group devoted to the "defense of civil liberties and secular governance,"...

    ...decided to be contemptible assholes by attacking a monument that neither threatened civil liberties or secular governance.

    1. Yep-if you’ve gotten to the point that you are worried about religious symbolism in graveyards the only thing you’re fighting to protect is your own phony baloney jobs.

    2. "…decided to be contemptible assholes by attacking a monument that neither threatened civil liberties or secular governance."

      Replace "a monument" with "same sex marriage" and your sentence would also be true - with a different set of assholes of course.

      1. How does one attack something that did not exist?

        1. I agree, Mickey, gays should be executed.

          1. Oh, please. I'll grant you that there is a small segment of the gay community that seems determined not only to live down to the stereotypes of 'Queers', but to invent new depths to plumb. But executing all of them is just wrong. For one thing, that's what the Jihadist squirrel food want to do, and any time one finds oneself agreeing with the Camel-Pesterers one REALLY needs to reassess.

            In any case, I think that before too long these ninnies - Evangelical Atheists, intolerant perverts, Eco-ninnies, and so on - will be experiencing a backlash FAR more painful to them than the threat of death. Executing them means you think they are important...and they just aren't. As Eco-blackmail, poly-gender idiocy, and persecution of the Religious fall out of favor, these fools are going to find that they are IGNORED. And won't these narcissistic imbeciles HATE that!!

            1. +100

              Ignoring them is worse for them than anything. Life for them requires affirmation from outsiders.

          2. I stand corrected. It is the second most stupid thing I will read this week.

    3. Hey I know! Let's ignore the actual issue and attack the presumed bad motives of the actors involved!

      1. You're the specialist at that.

      2. As best this atheist can tell, there is no "actual issue" involved, there is only the irrational animus of the AHA.

        1. The actual issue, as this agnostic atheist sees it, is that a group of iconoclastic anti-theist zealots are seeking to impose their beliefs on otherwise uninvolved individuals

      3. This type of busybody litigation is one of the things that is breaking down civil society.

        1. And limiting our freedom.

      4. Look out, chemjeff's white-knighting for his lefty boos again.

      5. Actual issue? How about this; we know from the debates on the Constitution that what concerned the Framers was the possibility of an established church, with and established (and therefore politically potent) hierarchy. That somebody would ever see the State maintaining a monument including religious iconography as being 'establishment of religion' would have astonished them...right up until they realized that most such individuals are, in fact, deeply religious and are fighting to establish THEIR religion as the State Religion. Progressivism - like most religions - depends on Faith over Facts. It just doesn't admit that it is a religion.

        1. And after the proggies do away with private property, where will you put the crosses then?

      6. chemjeff 101

  3. They ever see the symbols on the S.C building walking in? Or do they use the back entrance? I see no problem with a memorial . Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or what ever. All the graveyards here are owed by the township and you'll see plenty of religious symbols and saying there.

  4. The best way to avoid conflict is for the state to sell the war memorial to a private party or charity that will care for the war memorial.

    The SCOTUS allows cities, counties, states, and itself to have prayers before official government business begins. I doubt this will fall on the side of the people who want it removed.

    1. Additionally, for anyone who has ever been to any government owned and maintained military cemetery (like Arlington National Cemetery) the state paid for and maintains religious grave markers.

      1. Which makes the wording of Ginsburg's dissent a bit hard to swallow.

      2. I do believe graveyards are different since the head stones are chosen by the individual. Not that I support the humanist in this; file this case under: the last thing that matters in all of human existences.

        1. Her logic is that if it appears on federal land then tht he government endorses it. Even in this case if veterans cemetery where logic follows the government is endorsing all the religious symbolism, including the atheist headstones. The notion that existence of a religious symbol on government property constitutes an endorsement does not stand up to scrutiny.

        2. For military dead, the person has one picked based on any religion they select upon entering military service or the family can decide. The US Gov pays for it and pays for the burial.

          The legal precedent should NOT be that any religious symbol automatically means the government is choosing a religion and therefore a violation of the 1A.

          If only the 2nd Amendment had this much effort to enforce the government hands off the right to keep and bear Arms.

    2. The first amendment violation here, if there was any, was the taking, and should be remedied by the government divesting itself of the cross and the land it is on, not by destroying the cross.

      Otherwise we'd be setting a precedent for how the government can go about cleansing the country of all religious monuments, which is probably what the AHA has in mind, come to think of it.

    3. That completely ignores the history specific to this case.

      1. The memorial was originally built with private funds on private land.
      2. The state decided to build a public road that encroached on the memorial. Maintenance of the memorial (such as watering the flowers at the base) became dangerous solely because of the state's choices.
      3. By mutual agreement, custody and care of the memorial was transferred to the state. Unlike private citizens, their maintenance crews can set up road cones and block traffic when necessary.
      4. Transferring the monument to some other private ground (at government expense) was considered and rejected as too expensive, unnecessary and disruptive to the rights of all those citizens who liked having that particular memorial where it is.
      5. Moving the road was also considered and rejected as grossly disproportionate to the issue.

  5. the project was completed in 1925.

    So it's a monument to White Supremacy. After all, the war ended in 1918 and the monument didn't goup until seven years later. The KKK was at its height in 1925 and their primary symbol was the cross.

    1. SIV you are poorly informed. That monument included all those from the county that died in WWI including African Americans. The first such monument to include all together.

      1. Methinks SIV forgot the “/s”.

  6. These days the threat of religious establishment seems more coming from the government mandating a certain dogma on matters such as whether abortificiant birth control and homosexual acts are moral goods and punishing the organizations and businesses run by people who hold dissenting viewpoints.

    1. Who is being forced to take abortificiants or engage in homosexual acts by the government?

      1. The Obama administration attempted to force the Little Sisters of Poor and Hobby Lobby to purchase health care plans that covered such birth control methods. Catholic Charities is being forced out of adoption services for refusing to place with same sex couples, Chick-Fil-A is being denied government contracts based on the donations of one of its owners to charities with views on homosexuality that politicians do not approve of. The various wedding service businesses that do kot want to be involved with celebrating a same sex wedding.

        Governments are setting and enforcing moral dogmas. Have you not been paying attention for the last ten years?

    2. I agree, Mickey, we need to kill the liberals. We also need a theocracy to make us free and enforce good christian values. That's exactly what you just said and I endorse every word.

      1. Pay your mortgage.

      2. That may be the stupidest thing I read this week.

  7. That monument was originally built on private land with private funding to honor those from Prince Georges County, Md that died in WWI. Only later the land was taken for the roads to be built. Had this been ruled differently eminent domain could have been another tool to destroy religious symbols.

    1. Doubtful. Seizing land to destroy religious symbols would definitely violate the free exercise clause.

      1. If you could prove that destroying the monument was the primary purpose of the land being seized, as opposed to a government assertion that they need to build a road or public housing there

        1. Or take the property to give to someone else who will put it to a greater public benefit.

  8. What difference, at this point, does it make? The Supreme Court is illegitimate, the government is illegitimate, the Constitution is some meaningless old document written by racist old dead white men over a hundred years ago. Our Founding Fathers couldn't have foreseen a World War One, much less a memorial for the dead of a World War One, so what they might have thought about it is pure speculation and shouldn't enter into it. All that matters is our feelings about it today, and clearly we're outraged on all sides of the issue. If it causes outrage, it's hate speech and hate speech is not free speech. As Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out years ago, you're not allowed to yell, "Jesus Christ! There's a fucking fire!" in a crowded theater so that should settle the religious issue.

    1. If the theater is on fire, and you're trying to get Jesus Christ's attention, it's totally legal.

  9. I'm not even religious, and I hate atheists. Stop being so petty. Leave the statue alone.

    1. Even when I was an agnostic I couldn't stand the atheists. What's the freaking point of rejecting religion just so you can obsess about it?

      1. I'm an atheist and hate when atheists quibble over trivialities. I'm a Libertarian, but I appreciate Diego Rivera's works

      2. I'm not rejecting or obsessing. Religion is irrelevant, not a thing that influences my decisions, except for fish on Friday.

    2. The first error is assuming atheists are not religious. Many worship and protect their non-theism just as firmly as the most righteous evangelical Christian, are just as intolerant of other beliefs, and have just as little evidence that their creed is the true one.

      1. Right: Agnostics aren't religious. Atheism is as much a religion as theism, given the degree of faith involved.

  10. "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.

    Senility proved. Impeachment is the only answer.

    When a cross is displayed on government property, the government is presumed to acknowledge the freedom of religion as guaranteed by the US Constitution.
    Now, if ONLY the Christian cross is allowed, and any other religion's symbols are prohibited, and the government supports Christian churches with tax dollars, and no other religion can receive tax dollars, maybe there is a bit of 'establishment'.

  11. Does This War Memorial Violate the First Amendment?

    Asked and answered. Next question.

  12. For the record not all crosses means christianity.

    1. And not all swastikas or fylfots mean Nazis.

  13. Meanwhile, nobody gives it a glance when they drive by. It's historical! Avert your vision if it's so offensive.

    1. You can't unsee a religious symbol.

      1. So?

        The First Amendment doesn't talk about offense or "religious symbols".

        It prohibits the State establishing a church as the Official State Religion.

        By extension it prohibits playing favorites in law and policy between religions (and non-religion).

        But "I don't wanna see a symbol!" can go pound sand under the First Amendment as a complaint.

        1. My right to not see things that hurt my feelings trumps your right to allow them to exist.

    2. But what about the vampires?

      1. They travel only by night. Compromise and agree not to have lights on the cross.

  14. No. Next question, please.

  15. The 99% of atheists who are busybody obnoxious assholes give the other 1% a bad name.

  16. I would say we've done a pretty good at avoiding establishments of religion by declaring planes attacked us on 9/11.

  17. No, it didn't stand on public land all that time. It was erected on privately owned land adjacent to the road. Much later, a chunk of that land was taken by eminent domain to widen the road, now an urban stretch of a state highway, into a parkway with a complex intersection instead of a traffic circle. Now its smaller ground, closer to the roadway, may only be maintained by public works crews who can temporarily close a portion of the road.

  18. sadly or not.. I don think many people care about any of it

  19. I Reason establishing a religion by including a picture of the monument?

  20. You can't have 1A without allowing religious expression in public spaces. RBG and Sotomayor don't understand their contradiction. The state not forbidding expression in a public space is not a public endorsement of any particular faith. It only becomes an endorsement when the state permits one religion and forbids another.

  21. Betteridge's law continues to be correct.

    The answer is "no", and this atheist 100% agrees with the Court that this is in no possible way establishing a State Religion, or even saying that One Religion Is Betterer Than Another.

  22. How does one attack something that did not exist?

  23. "Does This War Memorial Violate the First Amendment?"

    Since when do crosses on memorials a violation of free speech?

  24. Didn't they report on this back in June?

  25. Basically, these folks are the atheist equivalent to the Westboro Baptists.

  26. No, because that symbl does NOT "establish" any particular religions sect or denomination as a NATIONAL religion. THAT is what the First Article of Ammendment prohibits.

    In fact, the removal of that symbol by government force DOES "prohibit the free exercise thereof" to many thousnds.
    So, once again, NO.
    Not a First Article of Ammendment at all.

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