The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center has filed a federal lawsuit over a 40-foot cross on public property in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. The cross was put up as a memorial for those who died in World War I. From the AHA’s press release:
A federal lawsuit filed today is demanding removal of a 40-foot Christian cross on government property in a Washington, DC, suburb. The suit, filed on behalf of three plaintiffs by the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, alleges that the massive structure, which sits on a roadway median in Bladensburg, Maryland, violates the separation of church and state principle of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. A letter sent by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center to the commission in 2012 asking that the constitutional violation be corrected resulted in no action.
“To any passerby, a huge cross such as this can only be understood as endorsing Christianity,” said Appignani Humanist Legal Center Legal Director David Niose. “On public property, that violates the Establishment Clause. We can all support memorials to those who have fought for our country, but they cannot take the form of a massive religious symbol on government property.”
The cross, which has been lit at night since 1965, rests on a large rectangular platform that contains a small plaque with the names of those from Prince George’s County, Maryland who died in World War I. The modest plaque is dominated by the cross and is regularly blocked by bushes. There are no crosswalks connecting the location to the surrounding high-traffic roads and the island has no walkways, aspects that contribute to making the structure easily viewed as a state-endorsed symbol of support for Christianity. The property is owned by the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission, a government agency.
The history of the cross also contains many religious elements. Initial fundraising efforts included the following pledge that was signed by those who gave money: “We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the Supreme Ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers who gave their all in the world war to make the world safe for democracy. Their mortal bodies have turned to dust, but their spirit lives to guide us through life in the way of godliness, justice and liberty. With our motto, ‘One God, One Country and one Flag,’ we contribute to this memorial cross commemorating the memory of those who have not died in vain.” The cross also contains an emblem of a gold star with the letters “U.S.” in its center.
The Christian right will inevitably claim that this lawsuit somehow demeans the soldiers who died that the cross is intended to honor, but that’s just dishonest spin. No one is opposed to memorials for dead soldiers, but the question is why should that memorial be a cross that can only represent Christians? There were undoubtedly non-Christians who died there as well. Why should Jewish, Muslim, or non-believers be left out from such a tribute? That’s the issue.