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.
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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
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