The US Supreme Court delivered a major ruling allowing the use of religious symbols in American life Thursday. The court ruled that a World War I memorial in the shape of a 40-foot cross can remain on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland.
The justices ruled seven to two in favor of the supporters of the Bladensburg cross, which has also been referred to as "the Peace Cross". The majority said preserving a long-standing religious monument is in stark contrast with the idea of permitting the building of a new one.
The Supreme Court ruled the nearly 100-year-old cross, which stands on a highway median, doesn't violate the First Amendment's establishment clause.
Mike Moore of the Maryland Veterans Commission said it's very gratifying to know that "the Supreme Court has sided with reality and sensibility."
Supporters of the cross were concerned that if the court ruled against them that could mean a ruling against hundreds of war memorials where crosses are used to honor fallen soldiers.
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel at First Liberty Institute said, "There's going to be a presumptive constitutionality for these religious symbols and monuments and memorials across our country, that is huge – that's a sea change."
In the Supreme Court's ruling, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, "The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg cross has come to represent. For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices to our nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark."
Shackelford says the legal precedent in the case of the cross was flawed
"They said that everything's changing, that this Lemon case where separation of church and state and all these concepts that are not in the words of the Constitution were brought up that have led to a hostility by the government to religion they said, look, in these cases, Lemon is not going to be applied anymore."
Shackelford says the Lemon vs. Kurtzman case of 1971 has been used to attack nativity scenes, veterans memorials, menorahs, and Ten Commandments monuments. "What's happening now is we're going back to the Constitution which is favorable to religious freedom," he said.
At stake in the Peace cross ruling was a dire scenario. "If this memorial is able to be destroyed, that means that bulldozer's gonna turn from Bladensburg and roll across the river over to Arlington National Cemetery where we'll start knocking down the Argonne Cross, the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice and may even makes it way down to Teddy and Bobby Kennedy's graves which themselves have grave markers in the shape of a cross," said Jeremy Dys of First Liberty Institute.
Two of the court's liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, both of whom are Jewish, joined their conservative colleagues and ruled in favor of the cross.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is also Jewish, dissented.
"The principal symbol of Christianity around the world should not loom over public thoroughfares, suggesting official recognition of that religion's paramountcy," Ginsburg wrote. "As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content."
"The founders would be shocked by that idea," Shackelford said. "We are religious people with religious heritage. There's (even a carving of) Moses holding the 10 Commandments in the Supreme Court."
Three area residents, as well as the American Humanist Association, which includes atheists and agnostics and is based in Washington, DC, challenged the cross. The opponents wanted the cross to be relocated to private property or changed into a non-religious monument like a slab or obelisk.
The supporters of the cross included the American Legion, which raised funds to build the cross to honor area residents who lost their lives in World War I.
Other supporters included the Trump administration and Maryland officials who became responsible for the upkeep of the cross nearly 60 years ago to preserve it and deal with safety concerns involving traffic.