Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

The cross goes to court

Religious Liberty | A Supreme Court case about a war memorial could have widespread implications for religious symbols
by Rachel Lynn Aldrich & Mary Reichard
Posted 3/05/19, 03:39 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in a case about a giant cross in Maryland that could affect public monuments and displays throughout the United States.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) sued the American Legion and the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission over a 40-foot cross memorial in Bladensburg, Md., that an American Legion post erected in 1925 to honor local men who died in World War I. The Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission has maintained the monument since 1961 with the help of public funds.

The Bladensburg cross stood for nearly a century before the AHA sued. A U.S. District Court judge in Maryland ruled the memorial could stay in 2015, but a three-judge panel from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the cross a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from establishing an official religion or unduly favoring one religion over another.

If the Supreme Court doesn’t reverse the ruling, the memorial must be removed.

The case raises two main questions: First, is displaying and maintaining the cross unconstitutional, and second, what test should the court use to decide?

Attorney Monica Miller, representing the AHA, argued that the way the cross is being used in Bladensburg offends just about everyone, including Christians. She said that as a sacred symbol of one religion, the cross does not honor the dead of other religions nor those who followed no religion.

Miller fielded questions about whether governments would have to remove all religious symbols if her clients win and had a tough time articulating an easy test to figure out which symbols get to stay and which ones have to go.

The lawyer for the American Legion, Michael Carvin, argued for simplicity: Expand the court’s prior ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which allowed religious prayers before town hall meetings. Under that ruling, religious symbols are fine as long as they don’t cross over into “proselytizing.”

“All symbols are sectarian, and if you ban sectarian symbols then you are necessarily banning all religious symbols, which evinces hostility and is in stark tension with the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clause,” Carvin said.

Part of the problem stems from two Supreme Court rulings from 2005. In one, the court said two framed copies of the Ten Commandments on display in a couple of Kentucky courthouses violated the Establishment Clause. But in the other, it said a 6-foot-tall granite Ten Commandments display on the state Capitol grounds in Texas, set among dozens of other monuments, did not. The difference in those two rulings? The Texas monument had stood unchallenged for decades, while the framed copies in Kentucky stemmed from an effort to promote religion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the opinion.

The two somewhat contradictory rulings sprang from the difficulty of interpreting the “Lemon test,” the leading precedent on Establishment Clause violations since the 1970s. Named for a 1971 Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, the multipart legal test considers whether government actions are intended to establish a religion, among other criteria.

Neal Katyal, a lawyer for the state of Maryland, argued in favor of letting the Bladensburg Cross stand, citing tradition and the passage of time. He also said that a “secular meaning” became attached to the cross during World War I, and people merely being offended did not constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause.

“I don’t think this court has ever adopted the view that, if some people disagree with something, that that itself creates an Establishment Clause violation,” he said. “If that were the rule, you’d be tearing down crosses at Arlington [National] Cemetery and nationwide.”

The justices may rule narrowly that old memorials that reflect Christian symbols may stay as part of American history, but new memorials must not use religious symbols if they are on public land and maintained by public funds, unless the choice of symbol is an individual one such as the grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Some hope the justices will take the opportunity to clarify the Establishment Clause—and that it doesn’t mean all religious symbols must be stripped from the public square. Kelly Shackelford, president of the religious liberty defense group First Liberty, which is helping represent the American Legion, said he thinks the court will do just that.

“I think it was very encouraging to hear that everybody recognizes that the Lemon test and the current approach that’s being used is in hopeless disarray,” Shackelford said. “It’s creating confusion throughout the courts. I think the court really clearly wants to change that.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty submitted an amicus brief in support of the American Legion and the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission that the court discussed during oral arguments, and senior counsel Eric Baxter also expressed hope a fresh interpretation was on the way: “The justices seemed clearly tired of the existing interpretation of the Establishment Clause.”

Facebook Facebook Rep. Hardy Billington

Secret suits

Atheists in Missouri are crying foul over legislation proposed by Republican state Rep. Hardy Billington requiring parties to sue in their real name and not a pseudonym in suits involving church-state disputes.

Hemant Mehta, editor of the Friendly Atheists blog, wrote that Billington’s goal is “painting giant targets on the backs of atheists (and others!) who dare to challenge Christian supremacy in government.”

The proposal is consistent with existing law and might even be redundant. Missouri and federal law have long followed the traditional rule that civil actions must be filed in the name of the real property in interest. Courts generally make an exception only when a party’s demonstrated fear of reprisal or concern for privacy outweighs the public’s right to know.

Billington noted the need for transparency in lawsuits, saying he had been the subject of a complaint when he erected a cross on his property. The complainants forced an expensive survey to ensure the cross did not encroach on the public right of way.

“House Bill 728 would guarantee that no individual or organization will be able to use state courts as a weapon to attack the right of Missouri citizens to display religious symbols in public spaces while hiding behind a cloak of secrecy,” Billington said.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering the bill this week.

Billington, a Baptist conservative, co-sponsored the Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act, a bill that would enact broad protections for unborn babies. He also co-sponsored legislation that would allow school districts to offer an elective social studies course on the Bible. —Steve West

Facebook/Amanda Fritz Facebook/Amanda Fritz Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz (center) at a meeting with fellow commissioners.

Portland protects nonreligious liberty

The City Council in Portland, Ore., voted unanimously last week to amend the city’s code to define religion as including atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of unbelief, protecting the non-religious from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation. After the new ordinance goes into effect, employees who suffer discrimination on the basis of their lack of religion may sue their employer or lodge a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. The new provision retains exceptions in Oregon state law for churches and religious institutions, allowing them to prefer a person of one religious persuasion over another in hiring decisions.

At the hearing, which lasted less than five minutes, council member and amendment sponsor Amanda Fritz said the lack of opposition to the measure spoke to the “welcoming and inclusive nature of our sanctuary city.”

The real drivers behind the change were recognized at the council hearing: the American Civil Liberties Union and the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, which supported a similar measure approved by Madison, Wis., in 2015.

A 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the Portland metro area is the second most religiously unaffiliated in the country: 39 percent of its residents identify as atheist, agnostic, or no religion in particular. That’s nearly three times the size of the next-largest minority: white, evangelical Christians. —S.W.

Building up the church

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear twin cases involving historic preservation grants to churches in New Jersey. Three members of the conservative bloc of the court indicated the prohibition of such grants raises serious constitutional issues.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a joint statement with Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, wrote that “prohibiting historic preservation grants to religious organizations simply because the organizations are religious would raise serious questions under this Court’s precedents and the Constitution’s fundamental guarantee of equality.” But Kavanaugh added that the Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, involving the use of state funds for a church playground, was relatively recent, and “there is not yet a robust post–Trinity Lutheran body of case law in the lower courts.” It is not unusual for the court to decline cases when case law in lower courts is not well-developed.

The decision leaves in place the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling barring the use of taxpayer money to repair and fund churches. Both cases were initiated by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and involve a program in Morris County, N.J. that funded the preservation of 12 historic churches. —S.W.

Read more Liberties Sign up for the Liberties email
Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.

Read more from this writer
Mary Reichard

Mary is co-host, legal affairs correspondent, and dialogue editor for WORLD Radio. She is also co-host of the Legal Docket podcast. Mary is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and St. Louis University School of Law. She resides with her husband near Springfield, Mo.

Read more from this writer


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Wed, 03/06/2019 12:01 am

    There is a consistent trend which may hint at a new law of opposites.  It is that every political argument by a liberal is logically self-defeating, based on precisely the opposite of what they say.  If they say they are protecting free speech they are attacking it.  A cross is not an establishment of religion.  A cross DOES honor all dead, since it represents death and victory over death.  The Lemon test is bogus.  If it says, "Congress shall make no law ..." then making law is all that they will do.