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Supreme Court rules that WWI cross on Maryland public land can remain, does not violate Constitution

Key Points
  • The case concerned a giant, early 20th century Latin cross, known as the Bladensburg Peace Cross, that stands in a Maryland intersection in the suburbs of the nation's capital.
  • The opinion of the court is authored by Justice Samuel Alito, who says the meaning of the cross was not limited to its religious context, and cautions against a government that "roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism."
  • Though the ultimate vote was 7-2, the case produced a smattering of opinions, with five justices writing separate concurrences to explain their thinking.
The World War I memorial cross in Bladensburg, Maryland -- near the nation's capital Washington -- is seen on February 08, 2019. The US government asked the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the cross that serves as a war memorial, which critics say is an unconstitutional state religious endorsement. Arguments are scheduled to be heard on February 27, 2019.
Eric Baradat | AFP | Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a 40-foot cross commemorating fallen World War I soldiers can remain on public ground because it does not violate the Constitution's establishment clause that bars favoring one religion over others.

The case concerned a giant, early 20th century Latin cross, known as the Bladensburg Peace Cross, that stands in a Maryland intersection in the suburbs of the nation's capital. It was erected in 1925.

The cross was conceived as a memorial by mothers of men killed in World War I and is now maintained by a municipal agency that has spent just over $100,000 on the monument since the 1980s. That expenditure has raised questions about whether the cross violates the legal prohibition against excessive entanglement between religion and government, a murky area of constitutional law.

The challenge to the cross came from the American Humanist Association, an advocacy group that promotes secular governance. 

Read more: Top GOP lawmaker is 'very confident' Supreme Court justices will keep war memorial cross

The opinion of the court was authored by Justice Samuel Alito, who said the meaning of the cross was not limited to its religious context. The court's five conservatives as well as Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer agreed that the cross should remain on public land, while liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

"That the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts does not change the fact that the symbol took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials," Alito wrote. "Not only did the Bladensburg Cross begin with this meaning, but with the passage of time, it has acquired historical importance."

And Alito cautioned against a government that "roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism."

In contrast, Ginsburg called the cross "the foremost symbol of the Christian faith."

"By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion," Ginsburg wrote in a dissent that was joined by Sotomayor.

Though the ultimate vote was 7-2, the case produced a smattering of opinions, with five justices writing separate concurrences to explain their thinking. Breyer, in a concurring opinion joined by Kagan, wrote that the case would be different if the cross had been erected recently.

"I see no reason to order this cross torn down simply because other crosses would raise constitutional concerns," Breyer wrote.

Arguments over the case in February were contentious.