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Judge: Maryland cross memorial doesn’t violate Constitution

(Flickr / David / “Peace Cross” / CC BY 2.0 / resized)

The Bladensburg Cross stands at the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, A federal judge said the cross, which is on state land, doesn’t violate the constitution. (Flickr / David / “Peace Cross” / CC BY 2.0 / resized)

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has ruled that a 40-foot-tall cross located on land owned by the state of Maryland doesn’t violate the Constitution.

An atheist group sued over the 90-year-old cast concrete cross in 2014. It said the display, erected as a war memorial, amounted to government sponsorship of religion in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment.

But U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow disagreed in a 36-page ruling Monday. She wrote that “there is overwhelming evidence in the record showing that the predominant purpose of the Monument was for secular commemoration.”

The monument, which stands in a highway median in Bladensburg and is referred to as the “Bladensburg Cross” and the “Peace Cross.” A plaque at its base lists the names of 49 local men who died in World War I.

The District of Columbia-based American Humanist Association, which led the lawsuit over the cross, is “obviously disappointed with the ruling” and feels that the “decision doesn’t accurately take into account the stigmatizing effect that the cross has on non-Christian citizens and service members,” the group’s lawyer, Monica Miller, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

She said the nonprofit is “still evaluating its options” and expects to make a decision about whether to appeal the ruling within the next two weeks.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns the monument and surrounding land, did not immediately respond to a telephone message requesting comment.

Cemetery symbol

Construction on the monument began in 1919, but the committee building it failed to raise enough money, and a local post of The American Legion later completed it. The symbol of the veterans’ organization — a star inside a circle — is in the middle of the cross.

A formal dedication of the monument was held in 1925. Today, the cross is lit up at night between the busy interchange of Baltimore Avenue (U.S. Route 1) and Annapolis Road (state Route 450) in Prince George’s County.

John E. Moss, Bladensburg’s administrator, has said the cross does not champion any faith and was “never meant to be a religious icon” but is a memorial to veterans.
Chasanow, in her opinion, noted the monument memorializes soldiers who died in Europe, and the “cross developed into a symbol of the American overseas cemetery.”

While the memorial is on a highway median, it is part of a larger memorial park that includes memorials to those who died in World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor as well as the veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. A garden honoring those who died on 9/11, was added in 2006. That context is important, Chasanow wrote.

“Within the context of its long history and the setting of Veterans Memorial Park, a reasonable observer would not view the Monument as having the effect of impermissibly endorsing religion,” Chasanow wrote.

The monument was initially owned by the state but was deeded in 1960 to the M-NCPPC, a bi-county agency that administers regional parks in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The commission restored the monument and rededicated it in 1965.

Lawyers with the AHA wrote the commission a letter in 2012 requesting removal of the monument. The lawsuit was filed after a 2013 meeting between the two sides did not result in any changes to the site.

The case is American Humanist Association et al., v. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 8:14-cv-00550-DKC.