In an unusual move, the U.S. Supreme Court has reserved 70 minutes for arguments on Feb. 27 as it considers whether a 40-foot cross erected as a war memorial in Bladensburg violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
The justices usually allow the parties a total of one hour to make their case before them.
In an order issued Tuesday, the high court said three entities supporting the cross’s constitutionality – The American Legion, local park service and the Trump administration — will have a combined 35 minutes for argument. The American Humanist Association, an atheistic group arguing the cross violates the First Amendment, will also have 35 minutes.
The Supreme Court is expected to render its decision by this summer in the consolidated cases, The American Legion v. American Humanist Association and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, Nos. 17-1717 and 18-18.
The AHA’s argument has won so far.
In a 2-1 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October 2017 that the cross “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion” in violation of the First Amendment.
“The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity,” wrote Judge Stephanie D. Thacker in an opinion joined by Judge James A. Wynn Jr. “And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland; and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds.”
In dissent, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory said the cross does not necessarily endorse religion when used to memorialize war dead.
“(A) reasonable observer would understand that the Memorial, while displaying a religious symbol, is a war memorial built to celebrate the 49 Prince George’s County residents who gave their lives in battle,” Gregory wrote. “Such an observer would not understand the effect of the commission’s display of the Memorial – with such a commemorative past and set among other memorials in a large state park – to be a divisive message promoting Christianity over any other religion or non-religion.”
The legion and commission appealed the decision to the justices. The U.S. solicitor general’s office filed a brief supporting the legion and commission and requested the court’s permission to participate in the arguments, which the justices granted.
Under the high court’s order, the commission will have 15 minutes to argue, while the legion and solicitor general’s office will each have 10 minutes.
The justices gave no reason for the extra time other than to say it was requested jointly by the commission and legion.
The controversial monument, dedicated in 1925, 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 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.