"World War I Memorial, Bladensburg, Maryland" by Ben Jacobson / CC BY-SA 3.0

Here’s Why the Supreme Court Must Declare the Bladensburg Cross Unconstitutional

Dec 21, 2018

By Roy Speckhardt

As you head east out of Washington, D.C., on US 50, a towering memorial appears in the distance. The 40-foot-tall concrete Christian cross is the first thing you see as you enter the D.C. suburb of Bladensburg, Maryland. For the last four years, this cross has been the center of a hotly contested legal battle, as the American Humanist Association (AHA) and its local members have challenged the constitutionality of the cross.

Government-funded crosses on public land have long been a point of contention between advocates for church-state separation vs. Christian privilege groups. That’s because religious symbols like the Bladensburg Cross, on public land, are an unwelcome sight to those who value religious freedom for all. Recently, after lower appellate courts declared the cross unconstitutional, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to take the Bladensburg Cross case, and that has drawn significant attention to the cross’s history.

In 1919, ground was broken for the cross on land owned by the Town of Bladensburg. The project was initiated by the Good Roads League to memorialize World War I veterans. Their intent was to create a “mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the Bible.” Donors signed a pledge stating that they “trust[ed] in God, the Supreme Ruler of the universe.” However, given the unveiling of a secular World War I memorial at the county courthouse around that time, many local citizens did not support the sectarian memorial. In 1922, the original committee abandoned their efforts. The cross, unfinished, became an eyesore. The town vested to the local American Legion post the “care” of the land for the “completion” of the cross. The Legion held memorial services around the unfinished cross, at which a Christian pastor led prayer and those in attendance sang the Christian hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.”

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2 comments on “Here’s Why the Supreme Court Must Declare the Bladensburg Cross Unconstitutional

  • I still find the issue of crosses and Christian (or other) symbols to be  difficult.  If crosses on public buildings were to be banned in Europe, half of our built heritage would be in danger. Fine architecture would  be under threat.

    Well into the last century the distinction between religious and civil commemoration was blurred, not by insidious religious zealots, but in the popular mind; a war memorial without some Christian reference would have been literally unthinkable.  This is no longer the case, but does that mean that our changed outlooks must lead to obliteration of  the monuments of the past, which reflect the cultural outlook of our ancestors?

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  • eejit

    If crosses on public buildings were to be banned in Europe, half of our built heritage would be in danger. Fine architecture would  be under threat.

    I’d be interested to know the specifics of this situation. I’m not challenging you on this. It’s just that as an American, when I read your statement I thought, how bad would it really be? 

    I admit that I do take an aggressive stand on this problem but I’m not interested in razing ancient cultural monuments either. The fact is, in the US we just don’t have one thousand year old cathedrals and monuments with crosses on them. The other thing is that we have a large number of aggressive Christian fundamentalists here and they have a history of overstepping the division of church and state and crying victim the whole time. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Most of the cross removal fights here have been over crosses and ten commandment displays on public property paid for by taxpayer dollars and also the recitation of Christian prayers at government public meetings.

    A while back we had a thread here about native Americans fighting an Astronomy observatory on their ancestral spiritual lands in Hawaii.  I believe the two sides cut a deal and made the best of it.  Perhaps this is the best way to handle these disputes.

    I wonder if you have a committee there for the purpose of deciding the fate of religious symbols on public property. Can some historically significant buildings and monuments be declared national treasures and be preserved intact? If a cross was inextricably embedded into the architecture of a building like that then it seems destructive and even dystopian to blast it out. However, if there is a monument with a cross that could be discretely removed and wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the structure then perhaps we’d be obligated to do so to make the structure more in line with secular society that we strive for.

    There may be a few difficult calls to make on this issue but the Bladenburg cross isn’t one of them. It’s on public property and they’ve spent a large amount of taxpayer dollars on that  chunk of cement. There’s no need to fret about it. It’s gotta go!

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