It’s a simple design: A large cross with a plaque beneath it featuring the names of fallen U.S. soldiers. But a group of atheists says that the memorial commemorating deceased World War I soldiers is a violation of the separation of church and state.
Known as the “Peace Cross,” the 40-foot structure has been on display in Bladensburg, Maryland, since 1925 when the American Legion, a veterans rights organization, raised the bulk of the money needed to erect it.
In addition to soldiers’ names, the plaque contains a quote from President Woodrow Wilson that reads, “The right is more precious than the peace; we shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts; to such a task we dedicate ourselves.”
It also features the words ”valor, endurance, courage, devotion.”
Despite nearly nine decades of prominence in the community, atheist activists have been seeking the cross’ removal from public land over the past few years.
Among those leading the charge is Fred Edwords, national director of United Coalition of Reason, an atheist nonprofit, who believes that the cross poses a constitutional violation.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s odd. What’s that doing there?’” he told the Baltimore Sun. “That certainly gives the impression of government endorsement of religion. … I just wondered how that kind of thing had continued.”
Edwords filed suit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Maryland, asking a federal judge to remove the monument. Others joined in as plaintiffs, including the American Humanist Association, another secular group that Edwords once led.
“A clearly Christian icon does not belong on public land because public land represents everyone,” he told WJZ-TV.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is fighting back, though they have offered no extensive comments on the matter. And the American Legion — the original funder of the cross — is asking the court to join in on the case, according to the Baltimore Sun. It’s unclear if the request will be granted.
The central debate is over whether the cross is specifically Christian or more general in nature, considering its standing as a war memorial. Atheists, led by Edwords, generally believe that it is explicitly Christian. Others disagree.
“I think it’s pretty clear to most of us who have served that the cross is not specifically religious imagery,” Mark Seavey, a lawyer for the American legion, told the Baltimore Sun. “It has more to do with a sense of loss, a sense of sacrifice.”
More than 6,200 people have signed a Change.org petition in support of the cross, claiming that the memorial is a “piece of history” and that it represents the town. Thousands of other supporters have taken their grievances to Facebook.
But Edwords and his supporters clearly disagree and want the cross moved to private land.
The debate over the cross isn’t necessarily new, as a 2012 news report from WJLA-TV cited similar complaints from the American Humanist Association:
(H/T: Baltimore Sun)