Attorneys for the American Legion are appealing a federal court decision that a World War I Memorial located on public land in Maryland violates the First Amendment because it is shaped in the form of a cross.
Last month, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that the Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland is unconstitutional because it constitutes a government endorsement of religion.
"The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity," wrote Judge Stephanie Thacker. "The monument here has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion."
The Peace Cross was erected in 1925 by the American Legion and local families in Prince George's County to honor 49 area soldiers who lost their lives in the first World War.
While the 40-foot tall cross was originally built on private property, the State of Maryland assumed ownership of the land and the cross in 1961. The property has been maintained by the state ever since.
The Peace Cross is situated in a park among other memorials to service members who fought in various conflicts. Supporters of the cross point out that the monument is marked on each of its four sides with commonly held patriotic virtues--namely valor, endurance, courage, and devotion.
But that isn't reasonable enough for Judge Thacker. She decried the fact that the monument was "conspicuously" displayed near one of the busiest intersections in the county, and was improperly maintained with government funds and personnel.
Chief Judge Roger Gregory dissented from the decision, saying that the First Amendment "does not require the government to purge from the public sphere any reference to religion."
"I cannot agree that a monument so conceived and dedicated...violates the letter or spirit of the very Constitution these heroes died to defend," Judge Gregory wrote.
The American Legion is now asking that the full bench of all the judges of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rehear the case. If the entire circuit declines to do so, lawyers for the American Legion say they will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawsuit challenging the Peace Memorial was filed by the American Humanist Association. The group called for the cross to be demolished or altered "to form a non-religious slab or obelisk."
In a footnote to her decision, Judge Thacker stated that she was not passing judgement on the constitutionality of Latin crosses displayed throughout Arlington Cemetery and other military burial grounds.
Judge Thacker said she didn't find them offensive because they were "much smaller" and were displayed along with "diverse religious symbols." Apparently, shrinking religious symbols and having more of them on government property somehow no longer entangles them with government.
Jeremy Dys, attorney for the First Liberty law firm, says that veterans have every reason to be miffed. "These vets have basically been told their war memorials are suspect if any religious imagery appears near them."
"These memorials are a lot more than pieces of granite. They're America's way of telling important stories of honor and sacrifice. I think it's imperative that we honor veterans the way veterans choose to honor themselves."