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Supreme Court seems inclined to leave 'Peace Cross' on public land

A majority of Supreme Court justices on Wednesday offered lukewarm support by leaving a Maryland war memorial in the form of a Christian cross to stay on government land, in a landmark First Amendment affair with implications for religious symbols on public property across the country.

At the end of 70 minutes of heated oral debates, most judges seemed to accept the narrow and limited view that the monument is of historical significance and that its Latin cross design reflects the national trend at the time it was erected, to honor the war dead with commemorative community memorials.


"What message does it send when people see it on television, they see crosses all over the country being overthrown?" Judge Samuel Alito asked.

The judges appeared to be abandoning their previous approach of resolving such settlement clause appeals on a case-by-case basis, stating that they could avoid a broader decision that would provide clear benchmarks for similar legal disputes. in the future.

The case is one of the most followed of this term. New Judge Brett Kavanaugh posed difficult questions to both parties, but gave no indication of how he would vote.

The Bladensburg Peace Cross, as it is called, is in a roundabout in the suburbs of Washington, where it has been defending for nearly a century 49 local soldiers from the First World War who died in fight abroad.

His supporters, including the Trump administration, said the 10-meter monument was created for the sole purpose of honoring these heroes and that he was secular in nature. Opponents call this an unacceptable overlap of church and state because it is controlled and supported by a Maryland Parks Commission.


"For members of other religions, this [cross] The symbol is not a way to commemorate the dead and does not have that meaning, "Judge Elena Kagan said. For many people, it's a very natural way to do exactly what they want. For others, no. "

Fundraising for the Peace Cross began shortly after the end of the "war to end all wars". Led by mothers of the Prince George, Maryland County Gold Star, who lost their sons in action, he honors 49 men, including four African-American soldiers and a recipient of the medal of honor. It was completed in 1925 and was built by members of the local posts of the American Legion, with private donations. It was then dedicated to a memorial dedicated to all American veterans.

Four words are inscribed at the base of the monument: Valor, Endurance, Courage and Devotion. There is no written reference to God, Christianity, or religion.

In 1961, a Maryland Parks Commission secured custody of the cross and landed at the intersection. The government now pays for maintenance and upkeep, although veteran groups regularly hold memorial services there. The structure includes the integrated symbol of the American Legion.

Similar exhibits on federal lands to honor the dead of the war can be found at nearby Arlington National Cemetery.

In Bladensburg, three area residents and the American Humanist Association filed a complaint in 2014, claiming that in court documents the memorial sends a "message insensitive to non-Christians".

A federal court of appeal accepted and ordered that the memorial be demolished, moved or altered.

The Constitution says: "Congress will not legislate with regard to the establishment of a religion or its prohibition to practice freely".

The Supreme Court has a mixed record of disputes over freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, with judges often resorting to a case-by-case determination.

In debates, a majority of judges wondered Wednesday whether new war monuments with religious images would be allowed, given the diversity of religions and views of atheists or agnostics.

"Look at the historical context here, history matters," said Judge Stephen Breyer. "But no more, we are a different country now, and there are 50 different religions."

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected suggestions that such monuments could have more than one purpose.

"Does the cross really have a double meaning?" she asked. "It is the preeminent symbol of Christianity, people carry crosses to show their devotion to the Christian faith."

"It's sectarian," said Judge Sonia Sotomayor about the Peace Cross. She also wondered if her long history was enough to allow her to stay.

"What is the tradition?" she asked. "During the First World War, was there a cross, or is it the tradition that the government can display sectarian symbols like crosses or an image of Jesus Christ in the honor of whoever because it's part of the tradition of the nation? "

On the other hand, Judge Neil Gorsuch rejected suggestions that the large size of the memorial was problematic, or "too strong".

"Is it too strong? Is the Star of David too strong? Is it too offensive?" he said. "We admit that people sometimes have to live in a world where the speech of others offends them, we have to tolerate each other, this is the only area I can think of as allowing people to pursue a crime. because, for example, they are too strong, and we have to dictate their taste for stalls. "

"I think the Constitution is leaning towards freedom in its structure," Kavanaugh added, suggesting keeping the memorial crossed.

Judges have a lot of discretion to make a radical decision, but that seems unlikely.

Chief Justice John Roberts partially blamed the lawyers who appeared before him for failing to come up with a viable standard to guide lower courts.

"I have already been a judge of a lower court and if I get that kind of [case-by-case analysis]"I'm just going to raise my hand," he told a lawyer at one point. "Do you have something more concise about the test that you would apply beyond examining all the contextual factors, history and all that?"


In 1971, the High Court established its three-part "Lemon" test, named in honor of one of the parties to the case. This has integrated legal norms in the relationship between church and state. But Gorsuch said the precedent has not been applied by judges in recent years.

"This has created confusion, I think, to everyone's confession," Gorsuch said. "Is it time for this court to thank 'Lemon' for his services and send him on the way?"

A decision is expected by the end of June.

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