WASHINGTON, D.C. — A 40-foot-tall, concrete cross on public land in a Maryland suburb of Washington is at the center of a case before the Supreme Court. But similar monuments elsewhere in the country could be affected by the high court ruling, states have told the justices.
The District of Columbia-based American Humanist Association, which is behind the challenge to the Maryland cross, acknowledges that at least a handful of other monuments around the country could be affected if the court sides with them, though they disagree with those supporting the cross that the number is vast.
The monuments most likely to be affected are large crosses on public, not private, lands and where there’s a prominent cross that isn’t part of a larger memorial or setting such as a cemetery, said Monica Miller, an American Humanist Association attorney.
By the same token, those monuments could be insulated from challenges if the other side prevails, as many observers think is likely given the court’s conservative makeup.
A look at the cross at the center of the case and cross memorials in other states:
If the justices wanted to take a field trip to see the cross at the center of the case, it wouldn’t be hard. The cross is located on a large, grassy traffic median in Bladensburg, about 5 miles from the Supreme Court.
Sometimes called the “Peace Cross,” it was completed in 1925. A plaque on the base of the cross lists the names of 49 soldiers from the area who died in World War I.
While a trial court judge ruled the memorial was constitutional, an appeals court disagreed. Those challenging the cross are telling the Supreme Court that it should be moved to private property or modified into a slab or obelisk. They also note that the nearly 100-year-old monument has been deteriorating. Chunks have fallen off and restoration work planned years ago has been put off while the case has moved forward.
A 34-foot-tall concrete cross in Pensacola’s Bayview Park has been the site of a sunrise Easter service for decades.
The first Easter service was organized at the site in 1941. A wooden cross was put up for the gathering, which was organized by the local Junior Chamber of Commerce. In 1969, however, the group installed the concrete cross that stands today. Lighting and maintaining the cross costs Pensacola around $200 a year.
Four people sued over the cross in 2016. They have the backing of the American Humanist Association, the same group behind the cross lawsuit now before the Supreme Court, and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. Two lower courts have ruled against the cross.
A bronze cross on a concrete pedestal stands in the town plaza in the center of Taos. Paid for by private donations and dedicated in 1960, the cross is part of a memorial honoring young men from the area who fought and died in World War II. Beside the cross are flagpoles flying the flags of the United States and New Mexico, and in front of the cross is a sculpture of three soldiers.
The town says it has been threatened with lawsuits similar to the one currently before the Supreme Court. If the high court doesn’t side with supporters of the Maryland cross, Taos told the justices, it would “virtually guarantee Taos would be drawn into costly and unjust litigation to remove its memorial.”
The Seaman’s Memorial Tower in Aransas Pass used to be topped by a cross, but it’s been removed because of wear. The 80-foot-tall tower still has a crucifix on its front, however. Lu Arcemont, 82, who chairs a commission that oversees the tower’s maintenance, says she hopes to see a cross topping the tower again.
Arcemont is the keeper of the tower’s history. It was dedicated in 1970 as a memorial to area fisherman who died at sea, their names on plaques on the tower. At first the tower was topped by a 22-foot wooden cross. A smaller, metal cross later replaced it. As for the crucifix on the tower’s front, Arcemont says her husband carved it out of a telephone pole.
Arcemont hadn’t heard of the Maryland lawsuit, but she was quick to distinguish her town’s memorial. She called it a “living memorial” because names continue to be added to it. People also sometimes scatter family members’ ashes at the site. “The reason we have a crucifix and a cross on our tower is so it represents both religions — Protestant and Catholic,” she said.
Aransas Pass is about 20 miles northeast of Corpus Christi.