The Bladensburg cross. Source: The Humanist.

In a widely-anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled late last month that a large concrete cross located on public property at a major intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland, could remain in place.  The nearly 90-year-old cross, which was placed to honor victims of World War I, had been challenged by an atheist organization as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishment of religion.

In a fractured decision, seven of the Justices agreed that the cross could stay.  Writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice Alito argued that, although the Latin cross has a religious meaning, its longtime placement at a major intersection as a war memorial meant that it had taken on a secular meaning as well.  In light of this longstanding history, he concluded that the cross was not a violation of religious liberty.  In rendering his opinion, Justice Alito eschewed use of the widely-criticized Lemon test, developed by the Supreme Court in 1971, which looks at the government’s purpose and the effect of a regulation to determine whether an unconstitutional establishment of religion is created.  Justices Breyer and Kagan concurred in the opinion, noting that each Establishment Clause case must be reviewed individually and observing that no particular judicial test works in every situation.
Continue Reading

Boston’s City Hall Plaza. The flagpoles can be seen on the right in the photo. Source: Boston Globe.

The City of Boston has three flagpoles in the plaza in front of its city hall.  Typically, the city displays an American flag and POW/MIA flag on one pole and the flag of Massachusetts on the second pole.  The third pole is used for the City of Boston flag, or alternatively, the flag of a third party.  The third pole has been used for flags of foreign nations, civic organizations, the LGBT rainbow flag, and others.  Parties can submit applications to fly their flag on the third pole, and the city has guidelines that prohibits flags that involve illegal or dangerous activities or conflict with scheduled events.  The city reviews applications to determine whether a flag is consistent with the city’s message, policies, and practices, but does not have any guidelines as to the content of the flags.  When an applicant was denied the opportunity to place a “Christian flag” on the City Hall on the grounds that the city refrains from flying religious flags on the Plaza, he filed suit.

Late last month, on the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, a federal district court found for the city.  The court determined that the display of flags in front of City Hall constituted government speech.  Applying the factors established by the Supreme Court in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum and Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, the court found that flags are a longstanding form of government speech, the flags in front of City Hall are likely understood to be government speech, and the city has effective control over the flags in front of City Hall.  Finding that the flags constitute government speech, that effectively ended the First Amendment inquiry.
Continue Reading

A photo of the cross in Bayview Park. Source: Fox News.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a 75-year old cross displayed in Pensacola, Florida’s Bayview Park was a violation of certain individuals’ constitutional rights under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment of religion.  But the court’s decision was based entirely on its “prior panel precedent” rule—meaning that the court was bound by a 35-year old decision on nearly identical facts—and the panel openly questioned the correctness of its decision.

Three individuals, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, brought the case in federal district court in Florida.  They alleged that they felt offended by the presence of the cross in the park.  Pensacola moved to dismiss on standing grounds, arguing that the plaintiffs’ injuries were sufficient ethereal so as not to pass muster under current-day standing doctrine.  The parties also filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the question of whether the cross violated the Establishment Clause.
Continue Reading

Photo Credit: bootbearwdc, flickr

In this most recent installment of the long-running (and long-vexing) series, “Crèches, Crosses and the Constitution,” a Fourth Circuit majority held that a 40-foot-tall Latin cross situated in the middle of a public intersection, and pictured at right, ran afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  Erected in 1925, the cross memorialized forty-nine soldiers from Prince George’s County, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., who died in World War I.  After standing for the better part of a century, it drew the ire of several area residents and the American Humanist Association, all of whom believed such a prominent display, located on public property and maintained with public dollars, unconstitutionally advanced Christianity.  The district court concluded otherwise, granting summary judgment in favor of the government, and this appeal to the Fourth Circuit followed.

A 2-1 majority
Continue Reading

The controversial church sign in Shickshinny. Source: citizensvoice.com.

Last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals entered an order upholding the district court’s decision in the case of Tearpock-Martini v. Shickshinny Borough, which we reported on last summer.  The case involved an Establishment Clause challenge by a citizen to

One of the images that FFRF wished to display in the Texas capitol. Source: New York Post.

Late last month, a federal court in Texas denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the State of Texas in a case challenging the state’s policy for allowing privately-sponsored displays in the state capitol building.

The Texas State Preservation Board allows private individuals and groups to display exhibits “for a public purpose” in the public areas of the Texas state capitol building, subject to the board’s approval.  A private group, Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for separation of church and state, wished to display an exhibit in December 2015 depicting life-size figures celebrating the birth of the Bill of Rights, along with
Continue Reading

This post is authored as a joint post of the RLUIPA Defense (www.rluipa-defense.com) and Rocky Mountain Sign Law (www.rockymountainsignlaw.com) blogs.  Evan Seeman of Robinson & Cole and Brian Connolly of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti contributed to this post.

Late last month, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled that