UPDATED: Dec. 2, 2015 6:08 p.m.
WASHINGTON — A federal judge has ruled that a 40-foot-tall cross located on land owned by the state of Maryland doesn’t violate the Constitution.
An atheist group sued over the 90-year-old cast concrete cross in 2014. It said the display, erected in 1925 as a war memorial, amounted to government sponsorship of religion in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment. But U.S. District Court Judge Deborah K. Chasanow disagreed in a 36-page ruling Monday. She wrote that “there is overwhelming evidence in the record showing that the predominant purpose of the Monument was for secular commemoration.”
The monument, which stands in a highway median in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside Washington, is referred to as the “Bladensburg Cross” and the “Peace Cross.” A plaque at its base lists the names of 49 local men who died in World War I.
The District of Columbia-based American Humanist Association, which led the lawsuit over the cross, is “obviously disappointed with the ruling” and feels that the “decision doesn’t accurately take into account the stigmatizing effect that the cross has on non-Christian citizens and service members,” the group’s lawyer, Monica Miller, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. She said the nonprofit is “still evaluating its options” and expects to make a decision about whether to appeal the ruling within the next two weeks.
The lawsuit was filed against the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns the monument and surrounding land.
“Our agency is gratified that our legal position prevailed and has been upheld,” said Adrian Gardner, the commission’s attorney.
Construction on the monument began in 1919, but the committee building it failed to raise enough money, and a local post of The American Legion later completed it. The symbol of the veterans’ organization — a star inside a circle — is in the middle of the cross.
While the memorial is on a highway median, it is part of a larger memorial park that includes memorials to those who died in World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor as well as the veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. A garden honoring those who died on 9/11 was added in 2006. Judge Chasanow wrote that context is important.
“Within the context of its long history and the setting of Veterans Memorial Park, a reasonable observer would not view the Monument as having the effect of impermissibly endorsing religion,” Chasanow wrote.
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