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On The Front Lines

Victory: U.S. Supreme Court Recognizes Peace Cross As National Landmark, Rules 7–2 to Preserve 90-Year-Old WW I Memorial Tribute to Fallen Soldiers

WASHINGTON, DC — In a 7-2 decision recognizing that a 40-foot “Peace Cross” memorial is not only a religious symbol but a national landmark that honors all veterans for their sacrifices for the country, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution does not require removal of the Maryland memorial was erected 90 years ago in Veterans Memorial Park to honor soldiers who were killed or wounded in World War I.

The Court’s decision in Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Society echoed arguments made in an amicus brief filed by The Rutherford Institute in support of the Peace Cross that removal would signal an improper hostility to religion that has manifested itself in efforts to remove any references to God or religion from public places.

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

“The controversy over this World War I memorial, like so many of the misguided disputes over the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ taking place in recent years, was yet another 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. “Ultimately, this case was not about religion so much as it dealt with 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 its amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overrule the Fourth Circuit’s decision, The Rutherford Institute argued 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.

Case History

January 10, 2019 • Rutherford Institute Presents Arguments Before U.S. Supreme Court in Defense of Peace Cross, 90-Year-Old World War I Memorial 

November 06, 2018 • Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case Over Removal of 90-Year-Old WWI Memorial

August 03, 2018 • Rutherford Institute Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Preserve Tribute to Fallen Soldiers


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