Humanists Cross About Bladensburg Memorial

Secular organization says Bladensburg Peace Cross violates First Amendment's establishment clause.

Is the Bladensburg Peace Cross a religious symbol?

Representatives for the American Humanist Association say it is, and are asking local parks and planning officials to either remove the 40-foot-tall concrete sculpture or give the land to a non-public entity to maintain. Failure to do so, according to a spokesman for the 10,000 member secular group, would constitute a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, which calls for the separation of church and state. 

"If this land wasn't owned by the government, then this wouldn't be an issue whatsoever," said Brian Magee, communications associate with the AHA. 

Magee grew up in Greenbelt and remembers the cross as a prominent area landmark. But he said it is in no way a secular monument.

"It's clearly a Christian symbol, it's clearly exclusive, and it's on government property," said Magee. "The courts have consistently ruled that as unconstitutional."

The AHA, working with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, wrote to the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission two weeks ago complaining about the cross. The letter, written by William Burgess of the AHLC, said that his organization took action after investigating a complaint about the cross from a Prince George's County resident.

"It is unconstitutional for a sectarian religious symbol such as the Bladensburg Cross to be displayed on public land," wrote Burgess. "A cross is an inherently Christian symbol. The state cannot choose it to stand for all of the fallen."

The group gave planners two weeks to respond to its complaint and threatened to bring suit if action was not taken within two weeks. 

Anita Pesses, spokesperson for the M-NCPPC, declined to comment in detail on the matter and said that her organization's legal team was reviewing the issue.

The cross, which sits in the circle near the intersection of Baltimore Avenue, Bladensburg Road and Annapolis Road, was initially built by a local American Legion club in 1922 to honor the 49 Prince George's County residents who died fighting in World War I.

According to Dane Weber, club manager at the Colmar Manor American Legion, the cross was maintained by a Hyattsville American Legion post until 1957 when the Prince George's County Circuit Court transferred it to the state of Maryland, which then handed it off to the M-NCPPC to administer. 

Weber has lived just about all of his life in Colmar Manor, except for his service in Vietnam. He served as a door gunner on Army helicopters between 1967 and and 1969. During that time, Weber said he participated in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the war, including the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Saigon. 

Twice a year, Weber's group attends memorial services at the Peace Cross. He doesn't understand why the AHA has singled out the Bladensburg memorial. 

"Get a life. Do something. Why pick on the veterans? Probably the majority of them have never been in the service, or if they were they weren't on the front lines" said Weber. "Like the old saying goes, you don't find an atheist in a fox hole."

Magee disagrees, noting that there are many atheists, agnostics and secular humanists serving in the armed forces.

"We want to honor all of our veterans, not just the Christian ones," said Magee. "This should be a monument that includes them all, not excludes."

Weber himself said he doesn't subscribe to any single religion. Aside from weddings and funerals, he said he doesn't attend church regularly.

"All crosses are not necessarily about God," said Weber. "You find a lot of cemeteries, especially in Europe for World War II, and they put crosses on them, just to honor the people who died there."

The AHA disagrees. In its letter to the M-NCPPC, lawyers for the secular organization write that courts have consistently ruled against the display of crosses on public land. 

Recent appeals court decisions support this claim. The Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, which features a 43-foot cross, was ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals in 2011. A year earlier, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals said that roadside memorial crosses honoring fallen highway patrol officers were also unconstitutional on similar grounds. 

News of the complaint against the cross has sparked something of a burst of support for the memorial, including at least one Facebook group, Save Our Historical Peace Cross in Bladensburg, MD.

Andrew Saderholm September 14, 2012 at 04:50 PM
The uncomfortable reality for the A.H.A. in this particular matter, is that this monument was built by private citizens on private land with private funds. 33 years after it was dedicated the county sued for ownership of the property under 'eminent domain' and won. taking over ownership (and the responsibility of upkeep) from the rightful original owners. They bear the responsibility to maintain this landmark because it was already an established landmark before they forcibly took ownership of the property from those who erected it. Simply because it contains a religious symbol is really of no consequence in this particular situation. The government is in no way endorsing a particular religion by maintaining a historical landmark that was built by religiously minded private citizens. It is not even clear that the intent of the designers was for the monument to be overtly religious. It may well be that it is just a very handsome representation of the typical style for war memorials of the time.
Francis Sheehan September 17, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Couldn't you argue the same about the Washington Monument? From Wikipedia: "The obelisk symbolized the sun god Ra, and during the brief religious reformation of Akhenaten was said to be a petrified ray of the Aten, the sundisk. It was also thought that the god existed within the structure."
David Keely September 18, 2012 at 12:26 AM
In response to the American Humanist Association’s request to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission to remove the Peace Cross, we support the retention of the World War I memorial based upon: - Tolerance Atheists, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, and others should respect the sensibilities of other believers and non-believers. - Peace This is a monument to peace. Humanists should honor that aspiration by not provoking a legal war on a sacred symbol. - History The monument has stood for almost 90 years with much meaning to past, current, and future generations. Humanists, secularists, atheists, and agnostics should combine their energies with people of all faiths toward removing the last vestiges of slavery, war, and discrimination to build a better and sustainable world for all. The following members of the Washington Ethical Society (A Humanistic Religious Community) - David Keely - Linda Keely - Rich Reis - MaryRuth Reis - Scott Wales - Todd Waymon - Judy Hanrahan - Ann Glendinning - Rachel M. Hartig, Ph.D. - Marty Kaufman - Nora Ludden - Randee Chafkin - Roberta Geier - Susan Runner - Ross Wells - Beth Baker - Chris Matias - Lynn Andretta The Washington Ethical Society, as a whole, has not taken a position on this issue.
Mico September 22, 2012 at 09:45 AM
Someone complained and then the fuss started? I grew up seeing the Peace Cross, I raised my children and they saw the Peace Cross. So, what? Leave it be. Who complained? I would like to know. I don't think this is about the government supporting a religious view over another. But, a group is being blindly used and they don't realize it. That area has changed so much, I don't live around there anymore. Remove it and the roads can be rearranged so they don't have to whip around it anymore. Remove it, so those who are newcomers, don't have to wonder why it's there and find out the reason. Yeah, I see more then it being a 'religious' thing being supported by the government. In DC, the USDA building, built before WWII, has symbols on the brick at eye level, it's the form of what we now call the nazi symbol. Is someone going to complain about this and that's it across from the Holocaust MSM? Should those bricks have the symbols blasted off? This is simply dumb. I would normally support the Humanists because I can understand, we are all living deserving beings, so why pick on this? SMH.
TomD December 03, 2012 at 01:49 PM
Taking it down at this point is very akin to Islamists dynamiting images of Buddha.


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