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Miller, Senate colleagues urge Supreme Court to save ‘Peace Cross’

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (File photo)

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (File photo)

The president of Maryland’s Senate and seven of his legislative colleagues are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn a lower court’s “utterly unrecognizable” decision that a 40-foot-cross erected more than 90 years ago as a war memorial on state-owned land in Bladensburg violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

In papers filed with the justices last week, Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong to hold that the “Peace Cross” promotes Christianity in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition on governmental “establishment” of religion.

Rather, the cross, dedicated in 1925, symbolizes the noble patriotic sacrifice of Prince George’s County residents, and now also others, killed in battle or terrorist attack since World War I, stated Miller, who was joined by fellow Prince George’s County Sens. Jim Rosapepe, Douglas J.J. Peters, Victor Ramirez, Ulysses Currie and Joanne C. Benson, all Democrats.

Sens. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, and Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, also signed on to the brief submitted in support of The American Legion and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the two parties directly seeking Supreme Court review and reversal of the 4th Circuit’s decision.

“The Peace Cross is an important public landmark that is central to the civic life of Bladensburg and Prince George’s County,” the senators’ lead counsel, Jeffrey M. Harris, wrote in their brief.

“For decades, the memorial has been the site of ceremonies celebrating Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day; it is also where citizens have gathered after tragedies such as the September 11th terrorist attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing,” added Harris, of Consovoy McCarthy Park PLLC in Arlington, Virginia. “The events held at the memorial are not in any way partisan or sectarian, but are instead an opportunity for the entire community to come together to celebrate or mourn. The 4th Circuit’s characterization of the Peace Cross as a predominantly religious symbol that somehow endorses certain religious views over others is utterly unrecognizable to anyone who is familiar with its actual role in the community.”

Explaining why he submitted the brief, Miller said in a statement Wednesday night that the cross is “a very important part of Prince George’s County history” and “a symbol of Prince George’s County.”

The cross is “a mile from our nation’s capital, is directly on the route that British soldiers took to burn our nation’s capital and it is within blocks of half a dozen veterans monuments, including one commemorating the War of 1812,” Miller added. “Senator Rosapepe asked me to join the brief, and given the opportunity, I did.”

The Supreme Court has not said when it will decide whether to hear the two companion cases challenging the 4th Circuit’s ruling. The appeals are docketed at the high court as The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, No. 17-1717, and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, No. 18-18.

The path to the justices was cleared in March when the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined by an 8-6 vote to review the decision of a divided three-judge panel of the court that the monument is unconstitutional.

In its 2-1 decision, the 4th Circuit panel stated in October that the cross “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion” in violation of the First Amendment.

The American Humanist Association, which advocates for a strong wall between church and state, mounted the legal challenge to the cross’s constitutionality. The American Legion and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns and maintains the cross, have sought to defend its constitutionality as a memorial symbol.

The monument has a plaque at its base that lists the names of 49 local men who died in World War I.

The cross is now part of a larger park that includes memorials to those who died in World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars. A garden honoring those who died on Sept. 11, 2001, was added in 2006.

The American Legion and park commission repelled the constitutional challenge in the U.S. District Court in 2015, as Judge Deborah K. Chasanow ruled that the cross at the corner of Route 1 and Annapolis Road does not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

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