It has stood for nearly 100 years in honor of 49 Bladensburg, Maryland-area men who sacrificed their lives in World War I. But this week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the historic cross-shaped veterans memorial unconstitutional.
The appeals court ruled the display, also known as "Peace Cross," is "an excessive entanglement between government and religion."
It said, "...displaying the Cross, particularly given its size, history, and context, amounts to excessive entanglement because the Commission (Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) is displaying the hallmark symbol of Christianity in a manner that dominates its surroundings and not only overwhelms all other monuments at the park, but also excludes all other religious tenets."
The court went on to say the "display and maintenance of the Cross violates the Establishment Clause."
Ruling 'Threatens Veterans Memorials Across America'
"Today's decision sets dangerous precedent by completely ignoring history, and it threatens removal and destruction of veterans memorials across America," said Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel for First Liberty, in a statement.
First Liberty Institute and Jones Day represent the American Legion, one of the defendants in the case.
"This memorial has stood in honor of local veterans for almost 100 years and is lawful under the First Amendment," said Michael Carvin, lead counsel for The American Legion and Partner at Jones Day. "To remove it would be a tremendous dishonor to the local men who gave their lives during The Great War."
Chief Judge Roger Gregory, who concurred in part and dissented in part, wrote a separate opinion:
"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."
Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty, said his team is looking at all their options for the American Legion, including appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The American Legion's commitment to preserving the Bladensburg Memorial has been unwavering," Shackelford said. "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.'"
In 2014, the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit, claiming the memorial is unconstitutional. It wanted the cross to be destroyed or changed, possibly by taking off its arms "to form a non-religious slab or obelisk," according to The Washington Times.