Acton Institute Powerblog

6 Quotes: Supreme Court justices on the ‘Peace Cross’ case

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Earlier today the Supreme Court issued its ruling in American Legion v. American Humanist Association—also known as the Bladensburg Cross case. The Court ruled that the 40-foot-tall stone and concrete “Peace Cross” memorial displayed on government-owned property in Bladensburg, Maryland outside Washington, DC does not violate the Establishment Clause.

The Court said retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones. Here are six quotes from the ruling you should know about.

On the religion clauses: “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.”

On the cross as symbol: “The cross came into widespread use as a symbol of Christianity by the fourth century, 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 secular.”

On religiously expressive monuments: “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.”

Justice Kavanaugh: “I agree with the Court that the Bladensburg Cross is constitutional. At the same time, I have deep respect for the plaintiffs’ sincere objections to seeing the cross on public land. I have great respect for the Jewish war veterans who in an amicus brief say that the cross on public land sends a message of exclusion. I recognize their sense of distress and alienation. Moreover, I fully understand the deeply religious nature of the cross. It would demean both believers and nonbelievers to say that the cross is not religious, or not all that religious. A case like this is difficult because it represents a clash of genuine and important interests. Applying our precedents, we uphold the constitutionality of the cross. In doing so, it is appropriate to also restate this bedrock constitutional principle: All citizens are equally American, no matter what religion they are, or if they have no religion at all.”

Justice Gorsuch: “The Association claims that its members ‘regularly’ come into “unwelcome direct contact” with a World War I memorial cross in Bladensburg, Maryland ‘while driving in the area.’ And this, the Association suggests, is enough to allow it to insist on a federal judicial decree ordering the memorial’s removal. 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. . . . 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.”

Justice Ginsburg: “The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’ (Brief for Amici Christian and Jewish Organizations). Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized. Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation. Soldiers of all faiths ‘are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross.’ (Brief for Amicus Jewish War Veterans).”

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).