40-Foot Cross Divides a Community and Prompts a Supreme Court Battle

BLADENSBURG, Md. — In the back room of the Colmar Manor American Legion post, about a mile from a 40-foot cross honoring soldiers who died in World War I, the veterans were worried. They feared the Supreme Court would order the cross to be removed.

“It would be like a slap in the face,” one of the veterans, Stan Shaw, said this month. “These men gave their lives for our country and you can’t build a memorial? If they tear it down, it would be a desecration.”

The cross sits on public land, on a highway median in Bladensburg, Md., in the suburbs of Washington. After dodging heavy traffic to reach it, Fred Edwords, a former official of the American Humanist Association and one of the plaintiffs in the case, explained his objection.

“We have nothing against veterans,” he said. “But this cross sends a message of Christian favoritism and exclusion of all others.”

This week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over the meaning of the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial and whether the cross that is its centerpiece violates the separation of church and state. The case, one of the most closely watched of the term, will give the court an opportunity to clarify its famously confused jurisprudence on government entanglement with religion.

The court’s last encounter with a cross that served as a war memorial was in 2010, and its decision effectively blocking the monument’s removal was badly fractured, with six justices writing opinions.

“A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion. “It 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.”

Justice John Paul Stevens rejected that view. “The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice,” he wrote in a dissent. “It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.”

The court’s personnel has changed since then. Justices Kennedy and Stevens have retired, and Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016. But the court is likely to remain divided, much as members of the communities near the Bladensburg cross are.

The memorial was built with private money and completed in 1925. At the dedication ceremony, a member of Congress drew on Christian imagery in his keynote speech. “By the token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary,” he said, “let us keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.”

A plaque at the base of the memorial, weathered and partly obscured by bushes, lists 49 local men who lost their lives in the Great War, and the pedestal names their attributes: valor, endurance, courage and devotion.

A state commission took over the memorial in 1961, and it has spent more than $100,000 to repair and maintain it. More money is needed, as the cross has suffered water damage and is partly covered by a tarp.

The memorial was in one way ahead of its time, making no distinctions between white and black soldiers.

“The county back then and the whole state of Maryland was very racist,” said Mike Moore, one of the veterans at the American Legion post. “To have that statement of remembering blacks and whites in the same memorial even though they were segregated in the war, that’s a huge statement to how important this is to the way we live in this county.”

One of the names on the memorial is that of John Henry Seaburn, a black youth who died in France in 1918 in the waning days of the war.

Private Seaburn served in a segregated unit. He was buried in what was then called the colored section of Arlington National Cemetery. But the Bladensburg memorial listed his name without comment, in alphabetical order.

At a community center in North Brentwood, a historically black enclave not far from the memorial, Alvergia Guyton, 85, talked about Private Seaburn, who was her uncle. He died before she was born, but he was a big presence in her family’s life nonetheless, thanks to her grandmother.

“He was her only son,” Ms. Guyton said, “and naturally she wanted to talk about him. Some of the old folks would say he was hotheaded. He wanted to go off and see the world.”

Ms. Guyton said she had no objection to the memorial. “I knew it was a cross,” she said, “but I never thought of it as being religious. I thought of it as people dying, and it’s a memorial to them. I just can’t get over it that people want to tear it down. I think that would be hiding history from the young people.”

The plaintiffs say they do not want the cross torn down. “They simply want it removed to private property or modified into a nonreligious memorial (such as a slab or obelisk),” they wrote in their Supreme Court brief in the case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, No. 17-1717.

In a brief supporting neither side, two prominent law professors — Walter Dellinger of Duke and Martin S. Lederman of Georgetown — proposed a middle ground. In general, they wrote, large Latin crosses on public land run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from favoring one religious denomination over another.

“To commemorate soldiers of a multitude of faiths with a sectarian symbol — especially one, such as the cross, that represents a promise of redemption to those who have accepted Christ and eternal damnation to those who have not — is to effectively compel nonbelievers to be associated with religious doctrines contrary to their own religious beliefs,” the professors wrote.

But crosses are perfectly appropriate, they continued, on the gravestones provided by the government for fallen Christian service members. “For that reason, the Bladensburg Peace Cross may pass constitutional muster by virtue of an idiosyncratic characteristic of that monument — namely, that it memorializes 49 former residents of Prince George’s County” in Maryland “who were, in all likelihood, all Christians.”

Mr. Edwords, who is challenging the cross, said that “it’s probably true that they were all Christians.”

But he added that the looming cross, especially when illuminated at night, sends a message about religious favoritism rather than remembrance.

“When you’re driving at night, you don’t see devotion and valor and all that stuff; you just see a giant cross floating in the darkness,” he said. “And that leaves the impression that the city of Bladensburg is a Christian enclave.”

“Now I grant that people who grow up in a Christian environment often don’t think things like that,” he said. “Their Christian privilege makes it to where they can’t easily see how it looks. But for people like me — and Jews and Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists — this tells them they’re outsiders.”


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