A U.S. appeals court has ordered the removal of a cross-shaped monument dedicated to the memory of 49 men killed in World War I, claiming the 90-year old "Peace Cross" violates the U.S. Constitution.
According to a press release made available to GH, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Wednesday declared unconstitutional the historic cross-shaped Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial, which has stood since 1925 in honor of Bladensburg-area men who gave their lives during WWI.
First Liberty, the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans, condemned the decision, saying it "sets a dangerous precedent by completely ignoring history, and it threatens removal and destruction of veterans memorials across America."
The controversy started in 2014, when the American Humanist Association (AHA), an organization claiming to "promote ethics and the well-being of humanity without religion," filed suit against the park and planning commission to move, demolish, or modify the 40-foot monument, arguing that it violated the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
In November 2015, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland ruled the historic memorial constitutional and said it would be allowed to continue to stand where it was erected. A month later, the AHA appealed the Court's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and oral arguments were heard in December 2016.
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided the memorial violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Writing separately, Chief Judge Gregory wrote, "This Memorial stands in witness to the VALOR, ENDURANCE, COURAGE, and DEVOTION of the forty-nine residents of Prince George's County, Maryland 'who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world.' I cannot agree that a monument so conceived and dedicated and that bears such witness violates the letter or spirit of the very Constitution these heroes died to defend."
The American Legion-the largest veterans service organization in the country with approximately 2.2 million members-erected the "Peace Cross" to honor 49 Bladensburg-area men who gave their lives serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in WWI. Lawyers for the American Legion argue that it was designated as a memorial, harkening back to World War I grave markers in Europe, and that the symbol was not meant to be religious.
"This memorial has stood in honor of local veterans for almost 100 years and is lawful under the First Amendment," Michael Carvin, lead counsel for The American Legion and Partner at Jones Day, said. "To remove it would be a tremendous dishonor to the local men who gave their lives during The Great War."
Despite the decision, First Liberty has vowed to "explore all options" on behalf of the American Legion, including an appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The American Legion's commitment to preserving the Bladensburg Memorial has been unwavering," said Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty. "Their determination is appropriately illustrated by President Woodrow Wilson's words engraved at the memorial's base: 'The right is more precious than the peace; we shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest to our hearts; to such a task we dedicate ourselves.'"