If the U.S. Supreme Court took a light touch on cultural issues following the contentious confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh this fall, the period of restraint didn't last long.
The justices on Wednesday are set to hear arguments over whether a giant, four-story World War I memorial cross located in a busy Maryland intersection and maintained by the government can remain standing.
The case, which touches at the core of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, is the most significant dispute over a public monument to reach the top court since Chief Justice John Roberts took the helm.
It comes before the court in the wake of controversial orders connected to abortion and a Muslim inmate's religious rights during execution, and just a month after the justices said they would hear their first major gun-control case in nearly a decade.
The case also comes amid heightened focus on the First Amendment. Earlier this month, Chief Justice John Roberts declared himself "the most aggressive defender" of the First Amendment in public remarks, while Justice Clarence Thomas took aim at one of the court's most important press freedom rulings.
The litigation concerns a 40-foot-tall, 16-ton cross-shaped memorial to veterans of the first World War. The cross sits at the entrance to the town of Bladensburg, where it has been since 1925. Its maintenance is funded by a government agency that has spent just over $100,000 on the monument since 1985.
Opponents of the cross say it violates the Constitution's wall of separation between government and religion. They include humanists, whose philosophy rejects theism, and Jewish veterans.
In 2014, the American Humanist Association and several local humanists challenged the monument, arguing that the cross demonstrated government favoritism of Christianity over other religions. They say that the monument must be transferred to private property or reshaped into an obelisk by lopping off its crossbar.
The American Legion and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission are arguing that the monument should stay. The cross, though it incorporates religious imagery, is a "powerful symbol of the fallen," they say.
Lined up behind the defenders of the cross are a host of veterans groups and more than 80 members of Congress, including two dozen U.S. senators led by Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as more than two dozen U.S. states.
The lawmakers and others defending the cross said that an unfavorable ruling could jeopardize hundreds of monuments across the country, such as the Ground Zero Cross in Manhattan and prominent crosses in Arlington National Cemetery.
Meanwhile, a Jewish veterans group has told the court that for Jewish veterans, the memorial serves as a "reminder of the promise of salvation that they do not accept and from which they are excluded."
"No one would think that a war memorial consisting of a large Star of David was intended to honor the sacrifice of Christian soldiers," they wrote.