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A Huge Cross Can Remain on Public Land in Maryland

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Bladensburg Cross, a World War I monument, has effectively become secular.
The Bladensburg Cross.

The Bladensburg Cross.

In a 7–2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a giant memorial cross on public land in Maryland can stay there.

The Bladensburg Cross, which stands at the center of an intersection, was erected between 1919 and 1925 in memory of soldiers from Prince George's County who died in World War I. A cross was chosen, according to the court ruling, because the Latin cross "had become a symbol of the war." The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission acquired the land the monument occupies in 1961.

In 2014, groups including the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit alleging that having the cross on public land violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from favoring any one religion.

In an opinion delivered by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court ruled that the cross does not, in fact, violate the establishment clause. "Even if the monument's original purpose was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment and the monument may be retained for the sake of its historical significance or its place in a common cultural heritage," Alito writes. The passage of time in this case, he explains, "gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality."

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

This decision could have major ripple effects for other monuments that include symbols with religious significance. Last August, Jack Denton wrote for Pacific Standard about the Satanic Temple's protest against the Ten Commandments monument that stands at the Arkansas State Capitol. Satanic Temple members briefly installed their own statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed creature associated with the non-theistic religious organization. As Denton writes:

The Satanic Temple argues that, as long as an explicitly Judeo-Christian monument is showcased at the capitol, other religious groups must also be allowed to erect statues symbolizing their faith.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Arkansas over the monument in May of last year. In a statement at the time, Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said, "When government officials take sides in matters of religion, they alienate those who don't subscribe to that particular set of beliefs and undermine everyone's right to religious freedom."