Supreme Court ‘Peace Cross’ case tackles religious freedom debate
Bernice Snyder was spiritual, but she wasn’t what you’d call a religious woman, her grandson recalls. When she and other mothers sought a memorial to commemorate their sons who died on Europe’s battlefields in World War I, they settled on a Latin cross because it looked like the markers that sat on top of their sons’ graves.
Thus was born the Bladensburg Peace Cross, which today stands on public park land at the center of two major roads in the Maryland suburbs of Washington and also stands at the center of a raging national controversy over the limits of public memorials, religious freedom, the separation of church and state and who wins and loses in debates over tolerance.
On Wednesday, the case goes to the Supreme Court, where the justices hear oral arguments and, within a few months, will deliver a verdict on whether a cross is inherently an exclusionary Christian symbol and must be taken down.
The American Humanist Association, which is challenging the cross, says there can’t be any doubt a visitor who sees a 40-foot symbol of Christianity would interpret it as a statement of religion, and since it’s sitting on public land, and maintained by taxpayer money, that means the government is endorsing Christianity.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and ordered the locals to find a solution that either replaced government support or modified the memorial to make it more inclusive to other faiths.
Now the nation’s highest court will weigh in, in what’s turned into the marquee case of this term.
For Loren B. Harmon, there should be no controversy at all.
Bernice Snyder, his grandmother, was instrumental in getting the cross erected, and she had the honor of unveiling it in 1925. She also regularly led Memorial Day ceremonies in subsequent years.
Mr. Harmon says she saw it as a larger version of the wooden cross that stood watch over her son, infantry Cpl. Maurice B. Snyder, in his original grave in Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Bernice Snyder treasured a photo of her son’s Argonne grave, and it passed down through the family to Mr. Harmon, who still has it today.
“The selection of a cross for this monument was not a religious decision. If you were a soldier or a Marine and were killed in World War I and they buried you in the cemetery out there, ... you got a cross,” Mr. Harmon told The Washington Times. “You could even argue in this particular representation it was not intended to have any religious significance. It is what was done when you got killed in World War I.”
Bladensburg’s cross was erected with funds raised by the local American Legion’s Snyder-Farmer Post named in part after Maurice Snyder and dedicated on public lands in 1925.
It has subsequently been used for numerous Memorial Day, Fourth of July and other remembrance ceremonies, and was also used for some religious ceremonies in 1931.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission acquired the cross from the American Legion in 1961. Since then, the commission has spent tens of thousands of dollars on traffic management around the cross, and some $100,000 has been earmarked for maintenance of the cross which today has a tarp over the top piece, signaling a desperate need for repairs.
The words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage” and “Devotion” are carved at the bottom of the cross, and a plaque at the base is inscribed with 49 names, in seven columns of seven, for each of the local men who died in the war.
Among the names are both black and white servicemen. At a time when American units were still segregated, the cross unified them in death, said Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel at the First Liberty Institute, who called it a “prescient equality.”
One of those black soldiers was Private John Seaburn, who died just days before his 21st birthday, and was buried in Marne. His niece, Alvergia Guyton, remembers a trip to the cemetery with her mother, Pvt. Seaburn’s sister, and the moment they saw his name emblazoned on a plaque at the Bladensburg site.
For Ms. Guyton, the Peace Cross is a monument to black Americans’ service to their country.
“It’s history, and people can’t see it when they start tearing it down,” she says in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court case has drawn wide-ranging arguments from all sides in the debate.
Muslim Advocates, a group of Islamic civil rights activists, says the cross must go. They argue its size and prominent roadside placement leave most observers with no chance to grasp the memorial context; the only message most get is an endorsement of religion and a glimpse of Christianity’s central symbol.
But the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty supports preserving the cross, saying to take it down would amount to outright hostility to religion’s role in the public square. The coalition said that, as it stands now, the court could find itself at the mercy of any plaintiff who could claim to be personally offended.
“Nowhere else in American law does this type of abstract injury support standing” and a right to take their case to court, the coalition told the justices.
Other communities weighed in, worried their memorials could also be vulnerable if the high court doesn’t put the 4th Circuit’s order back in the bottle.
Taos, New Mexico, said it fears its war memorial in the town plaza would have to go. That memorial features a dark cross erected by a group calling itself the “War Mothers” to commemorate soldiers who died in World War II’s Bataan Death March. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has already urged the town to pull down the memorial.
The American Humanist Association says the scare stories are overblown, and argues most crosses will survive legal scrutiny.
The Celtic cross dedicated to the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg can remain because of its ethnic character, as a symbol of Irish immigrant troops, the AHA predicted. And it said other monuments have designs that incorporate a cross but not as the dominant feature, making them legally acceptable.
As for Bladensburg, the AHA says memorial supporters have a number of options, including moving the cross, replacing it or turning it into something less religiously significant perhaps by cutting off the arms to turn it into a Washington Monument-like obelisk.
The Lemon Test
Legal analysts say the case offers the Supreme Court a chance to update, or perhaps to toss out, the current test for religious entanglements, dubbed the Lemon Test after a 1971 case. To pass constitutional muster, the ruling held, the law, practice or object in question in this case, the cross must have a secular purpose, must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and must not create an “excessive government entanglement with religion.”
Lemon has shown cracks, but remains an influential guide for lower courts trying to wade through thorny questions of church and state. The majority opinion in the 4th Circuit cited the case approvingly in ruling against the cross. Yet Chief Judge Roger Gregory also cited Lemon in his dissent that found the cross was permissible.
What the high court justices, with two new conservative members appointed by President Trump, will do with Lemon will be a matter of intense scrutiny.
How much weight the court will give to Bernice Snyder and the other mothers who erected the cross as a memorial is also unknown.
Cpl. Snyder was part of the Argonne offensive, the last major action of the war. German officials had already asked President Wilson to broker an armistice, but they and the British and French governments were sparring over preconditions as the fighting ground on.
On the seventh day of the offensive Cpl. Snyder was leading his men to take on a German machine gun nest, facing down what Private Carroll F. Stack, a boyhood pal who was also in the same squad, called a “rain of steel from the machine guns in our front.”
“A powerful Hun arose and hurled a shell into our midst. Maurice was killed and my arm was hit. It carried some of our men 10 feet,” Stack said in a letter back home, which was reported in The Washington Times, the namesake of this newspaper.
Pvt. Stack said he made sure to take revenge.
“I saw that I could not help Maurice, so when the signal came, I took part in the advance and killed the Hun who killed my best boyhood friend. We went through hell and gave the Huns hell. Maurice is avenged,” he wrote.
Cpl. Snyder was buried with more than 15,000 other Americans in the Argonne cemetery. In 1921, his remains were brought back to the U.S. and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery, where he now lies in Section 18.
Standing watch over Section 18 is a white, 13-foot-tall Latin cross.
The American Humanist Association says that will not be disturbed, no matter what the high court rules on the Bladensburg cross.
Mr. Harmon, the grandson, isn’t so certain.
If cross must go, he said, “The decision logically extends, it seems to me, to all crosses on public land, like in the national cemeteries.”
“Are we to rip up all the crosses in all the national cemeteries, or for that matter the Star of David? I don’t see how the two can be divorced.”