As you head east out of Washington, D.C., on US 50, a towering memorial appears in the distance. The 40-foot-tall concrete Christian cross is the first thing you see as you enter the D.C. suburb of Bladensburg, Maryland. For the last four years, this cross has been the center of a hotly contested legal battle, as the American Humanist Association (AHA) and its local members have challenged the constitutionality of the cross.
Government-funded crosses on public land have long been a point of contention between advocates for church-state separation vs. Christian privilege groups. That’s because religious symbols like the Bladensburg Cross, on public land, are an unwelcome sight to those who value religious freedom for all. Recently, after lower appellate courts declared the cross unconstitutional, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to take the Bladensburg Cross case, and that has drawn significant attention to the cross’s history.
In 1919, ground was broken for the cross on land owned by the Town of Bladensburg. The project was initiated by the Good Roads League to memorialize World War I veterans. Their intent was to create a “mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the Bible.” Donors signed a pledge stating that they “trust[ed] in God, the Supreme Ruler of the universe.” However, given the unveiling of a secular World War I memorial at the county courthouse around that time, many local citizens did not support the sectarian memorial. In 1922, the original committee abandoned their efforts. The cross, unfinished, became an eyesore. The town vested to the local American Legion post the “care” of the land for the “completion” of the cross. The Legion held memorial services around the unfinished cross, at which a Christian pastor led prayer and those in attendance sang the Christian hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.”
The cross was officially dedicated in 1925 at an elaborate ceremony featuring government officials and Christian clergy. The keynote speaker, Maryland Representative Stephen Gambrill, proclaimed: “by the token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary, let us keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.” A Roman Catholic priest and a Baptist minister delivered Christian prayers. No other religions were represented. Frank Mountford, leading evangelist, held three “Sunday services” at the cross in 1931.
In 1935, the State Roads Commission claimed it owned the land, and in 1956 the Circuit Court ruled that the State of Maryland was the rightful owner of the property. In 1960, the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission, a bi-county agency of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, acquired the cross from the State Roads Commission for the purposes of “the future repair and maintenance of the monument.”
In 1985, the commission spent $100,000 in taxpayer dollars on substantial renovations to the cross, followed by an elaborate rededication ceremony that was co-hosted by the Town of Bladensburg to rededicate the cross to veterans of “all wars.” The commission invited a priest, Father Chimiak, to deliver prayers, and later sent a letter thanking him “for his contributions to our programs and trust we may assimilate this relationship again.” In the intervening years, the cross has continued to serve as a purported tribute to “veterans of all wars” rather than the forty-nine men named on the plaque who died in World War I.
More than the constitutional issue of the Establishment Clause clearly forbidding endorsement or the appearance of endorsement of a specific religious faith by a government entity, this is an issue of compassion. Veterans of many faiths — and no faith — have fought and died for our country, but the current monument only honors Christian veterans.
The AHA’s efforts to honor every veteran highlight the non-Christian veterans who have been ignored and veterans of all faiths who don’t believe that a cross is an appropriate war memorial. As the Fourth Circuit judge ruled, the current memorial clearly violates constitutional standards, and the current memorial should be removed, reshaped, or otherwise remedied if it is to truly and appropriately honor all veterans who served.
Massive crosses as war memorials are a callous gesture to non-Christian veterans and make it clear that one faith, and one faith alone, is welcome in parks and on highways. The AHA has and will continue to fight for monuments and memorials that truly seek to honor all who have served our country with strength and dignity.