Veterans' cross in Maryland at the center of national battle

Humanists say memorial on government land violates church-state separation

  • The Bladensburg Peace Cross, as the local landmark is known, was dedicated in 1925 as a memorial to Prince George's County's World War I dead. Now the American Humanist Association is suing the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for its removal as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
The Bladensburg Peace Cross, as the local landmark is known,… (Algerina Perna / Baltimore…)
May 25, 2014|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

BLADENSBURG — — Fred Edwords remembers the first time he saw the giant cross rising over this small town in Prince George's County.

The Peace Cross, as it's known locally, commemorates the county's World War I dead. A plaque at the base of the 40-foot structure lists 39 names, and includes a quote from President Woodrow Wilson. There's no figure of Jesus, or religious imagery or text of any kind.

But to Edwords, who lives in nearby Greenbelt, it looked unmistakably like the Christian crosses of his Protestant youth, standing on a government-owned median strip at the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and Alternate U.S. 1.

"I thought, 'Well, that's odd. What's that doing there?'" he recalled. "That certainly gives the impression of government endorsement of religion. … I just wondered how that kind of thing had continued."

Now Edwords wants to put an end to it — with a lawsuit that is drawing national attention, from atheists and agnostics on one side and Christians and veterans on the other.

Edwords, who is national director of the United Coalition of Reason — a Washington-based umbrella organization for atheists, agnostics, humanists and others, noted for its "Good without God" billboards — is asking a federal judge to order local officials to take the cross down.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, is the latest to target a war memorial cross on public land in the United States.

In California, the Mount Soledad Cross, a 43-foot structure that looms over the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego, has been the target of litigation since the 1980s. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in 2011 that the Korean War memorial violated the separation of church and state, and a federal judge has ordered its removal. But the order has been stayed pending appeals, and supporters have signaled plans to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Another long-running dispute, over a World War I memorial cross in the federally owned Mojave National Preserve, now appears to be over. In 2012, a federal judge approved the transfer of the land to the California Veterans of Foreign Wars; the National Park Service has installed a fence around the parcel with signs to indicate that the plot is private property.

Edwords is joined in the suit by two other men and the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based group that he once served as executive director. In court papers, they say that displaying the structure on public land "amounts to the endorsement and advancement of religion (and specifically, an endorsement of and affiliation with Christianity)," in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which controls the land, is contesting the suit, but saying little about it.

"Right now, we're trying to protect the taxpayers of Prince George's County from the undue burden or expense of having to remove the landmark, which has been in place for nearly a century," said spokeswoman Kira Calm Lewis.

The commission's attorneys have filed court papers disputing the plaintiffs' claims, but declined to comment for this story.

Away from the commission, a movement has arisen to defend the cross. A Facebook group has attracted more than 3,300 members from around the country. Supporters have gathered more than 6,000 signatures for an online petition. A "Save The Peace Cross" rally is planned for Saturday.

The American Legion, which raised the bulk of the money to erect the cross in 1925, is asking the court to allow it to join the case.

The legion argues that the cross has been used for generations by the military, not only in memorials and monuments, but also in medals and insignia.

"I think it's pretty clear to most of us who have served that the cross is not specifically religious imagery," said Mark Seavey, an attorney for the legion and an Army veteran. "It has more to do with a sense of loss, a sense of sacrifice."

Monica Miller, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, says such usage doesn't "secularize" the symbol.

"The courts have been nearly unanimous in concluding that war memorial crosses are Christian symbols," she said. "They're not generic just because they serve a second purpose of also being a memorial. … It's the iconic symbol of Christianity."

Nor did the creators of the Peace Cross shy from religion when describing their project, Miller says.

Donors who funded its construction were asked to sign a pledge that affirmed their trust in "God, the Supreme Ruler of the universe" and included references to "the way of godliness, justice and liberty" and "our motto, 'One God, One Country and one Flag,' " the plaintiffs write in the lawsuit.

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