June 20, 2019 — New York
AJC is disappointed by the United States Supreme Court decision allowing a nearly 100 year-old cross to remain standing on government property in Maryland.
“Today’s decision, while regrettable, is notable mostly because the Court did not do what some had urged—reinterpret the First Amendment in a way that would broadly allow non-coercive government endorsements of religion,” said AJC General Counsel Marc Stern.
The Court ruled, by 7-2, in The American Legion vs. the American Humanist Association, that the cross does not violate the Constitution because it was erected nearly a century ago as a memorial to soldiers who died in World War I.
In an amicus brief filed in February with Christian and Jewish advocacy organizations, AJC had urged that the location of the cross and its maintenance by the government rendered it unconstitutional. AJC warned that supporting the petitioners’ assertions that the cross is a secular, not a religious, monument would give government carte blanche to erect new crosses.
The Supreme Court, however, noted that its opinion should not be seen as permitting the erection of new religious symbols by government or on government property.
The 40-foot-tall concrete cross, standing on a traffic island at a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland, was erected in 1925 to commemorate 49 local servicemen who died in World War I. The Maryland government owns the land on which the cross sits and maintains the memorial.
In allowing the cross to stand the Court issued a very narrow opinion, emphasizing the length of time this cross has stood, the absence of any divisiveness generated by this cross, and the absence of any indication that this cross was intended to send a religiously exclusionary message.
As several of the justices acknowledged, official religious symbols are often divisive. AJC would prefer that government refrain—and be seen as refraining—from the religious fray. As Justice Kavanaugh was at pains to emphasize, the Court was not holding that the cross must be allowed to remain, only that it may.
“Today’s decision, the product of an unusual combination of Justices crossing the usual ideological lines in the sensitive area of religion, is, perhaps, a hopeful sign that it is still possible to confront difficult cases and issues and reach results that appeal across sectarian and partisan divides,” said Stern.