Supreme Court allows huge cross to remain on public land

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By Pete Williams  with NBC News Politics
Image: Maryland Peace Cross
Visitors walk around the 40-foot Maryland Peace Cross dedicated to World War I soldiers on Feb. 13, 2019 in Bladensburg, Maryland.   -  Copyright  Kevin Wolf AP file

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a huge concrete cross can stay on public land in suburban Washington, D.C., rejecting a claim that its presence is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

The court, reversing a lower court, said such monuments are essentially historic, not religious, a ruling that potentially extended protection to hundreds of similar tributes nationwide.

The decision was a victory for defenders of the Peace Cross, a 40-foot-tall structure that has stood for more than 90 years in Bladensburg, Maryland. It was built with private funds to honor 49 servicemen from the region who died in World War I. A state parks commission took it over in 1961 to provide for its maintenance, and it now sits in the middle of a busy traffic interchange.

The court rejected a challenge from the American Humanist Association, which filed a lawsuit claiming that the presence of the cross on public land was an endorsement of a single religious faith.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia agreed.

"For thousands of years the Latin cross has represented Christianity," the appeals court said, concluding that a reasonable observer would assume that the government "either places Christianity above other faiths, views being American and Christian as one in the same, or both."

But the state parks commission defended the cross as a memorial designed to mirror cross-shaped markers on the graves of American servicemen overseas. In the aftermath of World War I, it said, crosses became the cultural symbol of the fallen, as depicted in one of the most famous poems of the war: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row."

The Trump administration urged the court to let the cross remain. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Justice Department said the Constitution's ban on an establishment of religion does not prohibit the acknowledgment of religion in public life.

"Passive displays generally fall on the permissible side of that line, because they typically do not compel religious belief," it said.

Thursday's ruling adds to the muddle of past Supreme Court decisions on the acceptability of public displays or expressions of religious faith.

The court has upheld opening prayers at legislative sessions and has ruled against challenges to "In God We Trust" on currency or the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. But it also invalidated displays of the Ten Commandments in local courthouses.