Should American War Memorials Use Explicitly Christian Symbols?

If you’re interested in church-state relations or war commemoration (or, like me, both), check out today’s Atlantic article on American Humanist Association v. American Legion. Being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court next week, the case has to do with a World War I memorial standing in a traffic circle in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

There’s a wide array of WWI memorials in this country. Most common are the thousands of copies of E.M. Viquesney’s iconic doughboy, some of which were scrapped for metal during the Second World War. In my state’s largest city, the war inspired two “living memorials“: a college football stadium that no longer exists, and a three-mile section of parkway in use to this day. Victory Memorial Drive was dedicated in 1921 by the American Legion, two years after the group’s founding convention in Minneapolis. Then in 1925, the Legion erected the WWI memorial in Prince George’s County: a 40-foot “Peace Cross” made out of concrete.

Peace Cross
The Peace Cross in Bladensburg, MD – Creative Commons (Ben Jacobson)

The memorial is inscribed with the language of American civil religion: the words endurance, valor, devotion, and courage on the base, and a quotation from Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 appeal for a declaration of war (“The right is more precious than peace. We shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts. To such a task we dedicate our lives”) on the tablet bearing the names of the 49 locals who died in the Great War. Initially a private project, the memorial’s land was acquired by the state of Maryland in 1961.

So the American Humanist Association has sued on behalf of local atheists, arguing that having so explicitly Christian a symbol as a 40-foot cross on public land violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. A district court ruled against them, holding that the memorial has a secular purpose and doesn’t primarily serve to endorse a particular religion. But in 2017 the 4th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed:

The monument here has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion. The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity. And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland; and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds. Therefore, we hold that the purported war memorial breaches the “wall of separation between Church and State.”

The majority opinion notes that, from the beginning of the memorial project in 1918, organizers “required each donor to sign a pledge sheet recognizing the existence of one god.” Then when the American Legion took over in 1922, its memorial services regularly integrated Christian prayer led by Christian clergy — a tradition that continued in later ceremonies.

If you’d like to get a fuller sense of the church-state issues in play when the Supreme Court takes up the case next week, The Atlantic article is by University of Baltimore constitutional law scholar Garrett Epps. He predicts that the Supreme Court will “almost certainly reverse” the circuit court’s decision. But how and why the justices rule is less clear:

A lot is riding on its reasoning. If a cross-shaped war memorial is allowed, why is it constitutional? The answer will shape how courts around the country respond to monuments, official and “voluntary” public prayer, and other official and semiofficial manifestations of popular faith and belief.

Is the cross acceptable because it “has acquired the ‘secular’ meaning of memorialization of war dead” (as the attorney for Maryland’s park and planning commission argues) or because the Constitution only means to keep the government from actively coercing particular religious belief (from the American Legion’s lawyer, appealing to an argument of Antonin Scalia’s)?

Others suggest that this case should apply only to this particular cross, defending it on the basis that the particular group of memorialized dead “were, in all likelihood, all Christians.” But it’s worth noting that this is not the only Christian cross being used for public commemoration of World War I. Across the Mississippi River from Minneapolis, in St. Paul’s Shadow Falls Park, the Ramsey County War Memorial looks like this:

Dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution two years before the Prince George’s County cross was finished, the Ramsey County memorial has even more Christian connections than its Maryland cousin. Its inscription lifts words from Jesus, via the King James version of John 15: “Greater love hath no man than this.” And the cross stands on land donated to the county in 1899 by Archbishop John Ireland, just west of the University of St. Thomas and a Catholic seminary.

“The simplest solution,” Epps concludes his article about the Maryland case, “might be to ask religious folk to keep their observances distinct from public ceremony and symbol, much the way James Madison sometimes suggested, to protect both the integrity of government and the purity of conscience. Such is not the law, however, and probably can’t be, simply because our nation has by now so much history of blending Christian symbolism with patriotic display. And given that history, every dispute in this area is agonizing.”