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On The Front Lines

Denouncing Efforts to Remove 90-Year-Old WW I Memorial, Rutherford Institute Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Preserve Tribute to Fallen Soldiers

WASHINGTON, DC — Denouncing a growing hostility to religion that has manifested itself in efforts to remove any references to God or religion from public places, The Rutherford Institute is asking the United States Supreme Court to prevent the removal of a 40-foot “Peace Cross” memorial from Veterans Memorial Park in Maryland that was erected 90 years ago to honor soldiers who were killed or wounded in World War I.

In response to a lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association (AHA), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered the memorial removed on the grounds that the Peace Cross, modeled after a Latin cross, is a predominately Christian symbol and constitutes an endorsement of that faith. However, in asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court’s ruling, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute point out that the memorial was not intended as an establishment of religion on public land as the AHA argues, but was instead intended as a secular tribute evoking the rows of wooden Latin Crosses that mark the graves of servicemen who died away from home, having fallen on battlefields such as Argonne and Flanders Field.

Attorney Michael J. Lockerby of Foley & Lardner LLP assisted the Institute in presenting the arguments in defense of the World War I memorial.

“This World War I memorial is merely the latest casualty in the misguided dispute over the so-called ‘separation of church and state,’ a controversy that has given rise to a disconcerting and unconstitutional attempt to sanitize public places of any reference to God or religion,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This case is not about religion. Rather, it’s about intolerance, political correctness and a knee-jerk hostility to anything that might be construed as offensive to some small portion of the populace.”

In 1918, the residents of Prince Georges County, Maryland, began raising money to construct a memorial to honor the 49 county residents who had died in the service of the U.S. military during World War I, a conflict in which more than 300,000 Americans were killed or wounded. By 1925, with the assistance of the American Legion, the memorial had been completed: a 40-foot tall Latin Cross, which came to be known as the “Peace Cross,” located in the median of a highway and modeled after the crosses that mark the graves of soldiers who died in battle at Argonne and Flanders Field. The symbol of the American Legion is displayed on the Peace Cross, and a plaque at its base lists the names of the 49 service members who died during the war as well as a quotation from President Woodrow Wilson. There is no religious text or content on the memorial.  Since its construction, other veteran memorials have been built in the vicinity and the collection is known as Veterans Memorial Park.

In 2014, the American Humanist Association sued to have the Peace Cross removed, asserting that its presence on publicly-owned land violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. A federal trial court rejected the claim, ruling that the memorial had a primarily secular purpose and did not improperly endorse religion. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed that decision, ruling that a Latin Cross is a predominately Christian symbol and the memorial constituted an endorsement of that faith. In asking the Supreme Court to overrule the Fourth Circuit’s decision, The Rutherford Institute argues that a government effort to remove all religious symbols from public life would indicate a government hostility toward religion that itself violates the First Amendment’s requirement of religious neutrality.