The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and has ruled that the 1925 ‘Peace Cross’ Memorial erected to remember World War I dead can stay on public land. The Opinion is here.

Here is an explainer about the case from The Federalist Society:

The Marjority Opinion, written by Justice Alito, is complicated by multi-parts joined in by various Justices. This from the Syllabus (which is not part of the official decision) setting forth the breakdown:

ALITO, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II–B, II–C, III, and IV, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER, KAGAN, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts II–A and II–D, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KAGAN, J., joined. KAVANAUGH, J., filed a concurring opinion. KAGAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. GORSUCH, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOTOMAYOR, J.,joined.

The bottom line is that the Peace Cross stays.

Here are the introductory paragraphs to the Alito Majority Opinion:

Since 1925, the Bladensburg Peace Cross (Cross) has stood as a tribute to 49 area soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War. Eighty-nine years after the dedication of the Cross, respondents filed this lawsuit, claiming that they are offended by the  light of the memorial on public land and that its presence there and the expenditure of public funds to maintain it violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. To remedy this violation, they asked a federal court to order the relocation or demolition of the Cross or at least the removal of its arms. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed that the memorial is unconstitutional and remanded for a determination of the proper remedy. We now reverse.

Although the cross has long been a preeminent Christian symbol, its use in the Bladensburg memorial has a special significance. fter the First World War, the picture of row after row of plain white crosses marking the overseas graves of soldiers who had lost their lives in that horrible conflict was emblazoned on the minds of Americans at home, and the adoption of the cross as the Bladensburg memorial must be viewed in that historical context. For nearly a century, the Bladensburg Cross has expressed the community’s grief at the loss of the young men who perished, its thanks for their sacrifice, and its dedication to the ideals for which they fought. It has become a prominent community landmark, and its removal or radical alteration at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of “a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment
Clause traditions.” Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U. S. 677, 704 (2005) (BREYER, J., concurring in judgment). And contrary to respondents’ intimations, there is no evidence of discriminatory intent in the selection of the design of the memorial or the decision of a Maryland commission to maintain it. The Religion Clauses of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, and the presence of the Bladensburg Cross on the land where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.


My inbox is filling with declarations that this is a tremendous victory for religious freedom, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Were the monument not a war memorial or more recently erected, the outcome may have been different.

More from the Alito opinion:

The cross came into widespread use as a symbol of Christianity by the fourth century,1 and it retains that meaning today. But there are many contexts in which the symbol has also taken on a secular meaning. Indeed, there are instances in which its message is now almost entirely

The image used in the Bladensburg memorial—a plain Latin cross6—also took on new meaning after World War I. “During and immediately after the war, the army marked soldiers’ graves with temporary wooden crosses or Stars of David”—a departure from the prior practice of marking graves in American military cemeteries with uniform rectangular slabs…. This national debate and its outcome confirmed the cross’s widespread resonance as a symbol of sacrifice in the war.

* * *

The existence of multiple purposes is not exclusive to longstanding monuments, symbols, or practices, but this phenomenon is more likely to occur in such cases. Even if the original purpose of a monument was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment. As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, a community may preserve such monuments, symbols, and practices for the sake of their historical significance or their place in a common cultural heritage….

With sufficient time, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices can become embedded features of a community’s landscape and identity. The community may come to value them without necessarily embracing their religious roots. The recent tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris provides a striking example. Although the French Republic rigorously enforces a secular public square,19 the cathedral remains a symbol of national importance to the religious and nonreligious alike. Notre Dame is fundamentally a place of worship and retains great religious importance, but its meaning has broadened….

… when time’s passage imbues a religiously expressive monument, symbol, or practice with this kind of familiarity and historical significance, removing it may no longer appear neutral, especially to the local community for which it has taken on particular meaning. A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion….

These four considerations show that retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones. The passage of time gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality.

Here’s the Alito conclusion, which again supports a narrow reading of the case as relates to religious freedom:

Applying these principles, we conclude that the Bladensburg Cross does not violate the Establishment Clause.

As we have explained, the Bladensburg Cross carries special significance in commemorating World War I. Due in large part to the image of the simple wooden crosses that originally marked the graves of American soldiers killed in the war, the cross became a symbol of their sacrifice, and the design of the Bladensburg Cross must be understood in light of that background. That the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts does not change the fact that the symbol took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials.

Not only did the Bladensburg Cross begin with this meaning, but with the passage of time, it has acquired historical importance….

The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent. For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark. For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment. For all these reasons, the Cross does not offend the Constitution.

The Breyer/Kagan concurrence made the point that a new memorial might not pass the test:

Nor do I understand the Court’s opinion today to adopt a “history and tradition test” that would permit any newly constructed religious memorial on public land…A newer memorial, erected under different circumstances, would not necessarily be permissible under this approach.

Justice Thomas’s solo concurrence “in the judgement” is sharp, as usual. He agrees with the result, but would have gotten to that result much more directly:

The Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 1. The text and history of this Clause suggest that it should not be incorporated against the States. Even if the Clause expresses an individual right enforceable against the States, it is limited by its text to “law[s]” enacted by a legislature, so it is unclear whether the Bladensburg Cross would implicate any incorporated right. And even if it did, this religious display does not involve the type of actual legal coercion that was a hallmark of historical establishments of religion. Therefore, the Cross is clearly constitutional.

* * *

As to the long-discredited test set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602, 612–613 (1971), and reiterated in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U. S. 573, 592–594 (1989), the plurality rightly rejects its relevance to claims, like this one, involving “religious references or imagery in public monuments, symbols, mottos, displays, and ceremonies.” Ante, at 15–16, and n. 16. I agree with that aspect of its opinion. I would take the logical next step and overrule the Lemon test in all contexts….

It is our job to say what the law is, and because the Lemon test is not good law, we ought to say so.

Regrettably, I cannot join the Court’s opinion because it does not adequately clarify the appropriate standard for Establishment Clause cases. Therefore, I concur only in the judgment.


Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, has a separate concurrence in the judgment only, rejecting the notion of “offended observer” standing to sue, and the majority’s focus on the age of the monument:

The American Humanist Association wants a federal court to order the destruction of a 94 year-old war memorial because its members are offended. Today, the Court explains that the plaintiffs are not entitled to demand the destruction of longstanding monuments, and I find much of its opinion compelling. In my judgment, however, it follows from the Court’s analysis that suits like this one should be dismissed for lack of standing. Accordingly, while I concur in the judgment to reverse and remand the court of appeals’ decision, I would do so with additional instructions to dismiss the case….

This “offended observer” theory of standing has no basis in law. Federal courts may decide only those cases and controversies that the Constitution and Congress have authorized them to hear….

Offended observer standing cannot be squared with this Court’s longstanding teachings about the limits of Article III. Not even today’s dissent seriously attempts to defend it. So at this point you might wonder: How did the lower courts in this case indulge the plaintiffs’ “offended observer” theory of standing? And why have other lower courts done similarly in other cases? The truth is, the fault lies here. Lower courts invented offended observer standing for Establishment Clause cases in the 1970s in response to this Court’s decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602 (1971)….

The Constitution’s meaning is fixed, not some good-for-this-day-only coupon, and a practice consistent with our nation’s traditions is just as permissible whether undertaken today or 94 years ago….

In a large and diverse country, offense can be easily found. Really, most every governmental action probably offends somebody. No doubt, too, that offense can be sincere, sometimes well taken, even wise. But recourse for disagreement and offense does not lie in federal litigation. Instead, in a society that holds among its most cherished ambitions mutual respect, tolerance, self-rule, and democratic responsibility, an “offended viewer” may “avert his eyes,” Erznoznik v. Jacksonville, 422 U. S. 205, 212 (1975), or pursue a political solution. Today’s decision represents a welcome step toward restoring this Court’s recognition of these truths, and I respectfully concur in the judgment.

Last and least, the Ginsburg Dissent, joined by Sotomayor. On second thought, not going to write it up under the longstanding doctrine of: ‘What difference, at this point, does it make?


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