Feb. 28, 2019
Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the closely-watched case out of Bladensburg, Maryland about the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial known as the Peace Cross. A secularist legal group challenged the memorial because it is in the shape of a cross, which the group argues is unconstitutional in light of the fact that it is owned by a local government and maintained on public property and despite coming into creation under private ownership and funding.
Though the case involves a religious symbol significant to Christians, the decision—and the reasoning the Court uses to reach it—could have implications for the place of symbols and practices of all religions in the public square. During oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts noted that for Native Americans, “totems have spiritual and religious significance.” His question signaled that a decision on the Peace Cross would affect such minority religious groups.
It is a relevant question, as suits are consistently brought against religious minorities’ symbolic displays. During the holiday season, menorahs symbolizing the Jewish holiday of Chanukah are almost as controversial as nativities. (Judges even have a hard time deciding whether menorahs are too religious for public display.) The crescent moon and star, used by some to acknowledge the Islamic practice of Ramadan, have been involved in legal challenges. A public statue of Quetzalcoatl, which has religious significance to some Mayan revolutionaries in southern Mexico, also faced a lawsuit under the Establishment Clause.
Government action related to Jewish traditions like eruvs, consumer fraud protections for the sale of kosher goods, and ritual slaughter have faced legal challenges under the Establishment Clause, too.
While courts have allowed some of these minority religious displays to stand, the analyses have been all over the place. Lower courts are forced to render decisions under very subjective standards, only further proving the need for a clear, bright-line rule that will protect all religious expression in the public square.
Though some may like to say otherwise, it’s not just pushy Christians who will suffer bruised egos if the Peace Cross is removed. In this case, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and everyone benefits from a public square left free to recognize the religious expression of its citizens. We’re hoping the Supreme Court will take this case as an opportunity to not only keep the Peace Cross at its current location, but to protect the role of religion—all religions—in the public square.