In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Peace Cross located in Bladensburg, Md., honoring 49 men in the county who died in World War I, does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In The American Legion et al. v. American Humanist Association et al, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor were the only ones to dissent. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, but five justices wrote concurring opinions.
The Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial is a cross-shaped monument that has been sitting on state land. Local Gold Star mothers initiated the memorial to honor 49 Prince George’s County men who gave their lives while serving in World War I. In 2014, the plaintiffs, the American Humanist Association, first filed a suit arguing a public monument that includes any aspect of Christianity entangles government and religion, or “the establishment of religion,” and is therefore unconstitutional. In 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland disagreed, ruling the memorial was in fact constitutional. Later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the district court’s decision. In that decision, Judge Stephanie Thacker, an Obama appointee, wrote, “Even with the nonreligious elements, the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones.”
In his majority opinion, Alito makes his case that not only does the existence of this historical monument fail to “establish a religion,” but tearing it down would show significant hostility toward religion. “A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.” This is the second time in two years the Supreme Court has warned organizations not to do this.
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a legal advisor for the Catholic Association, said in a statement:
This ruling, however unsurprising, still remains a victory for the authority of the First Amendment. Hopefully, this precedent will ward off aggressive, malicious attacks on religious and historical symbols. Whether the American Humanist Association likes it or not, America was founded on the premise that inhabitants may worship freely, or not at all, so long as the government does not establish a state religion and coerce the population to adhere to it.
Within those clear boundaries, the pull of religious freedom encouraged people to live in the United States. Tearing down religious symbols does a disservice to the people they honored at that particular historical time frame. For those still hostile to the First Amendment, specifically still trying to undermine it in historical contexts, they might want to give Alito’s opinion a read — he obliterated their cause wholly.
Nicole Russell (@russell_nm) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. She is a journalist who previously worked in Republican politics in Minnesota.