What kind of country would this be if it were illegal to display a cross-shaped memorial to fallen war heroes on public land? Thankfully, we will not have to find out.
The Supreme Court has given all who love the First Amendment a reason to celebrate. In a 7-2 ruling handed down in late June, the United States Supreme Court upheld the right of communities to build and maintain war memorials that include crosses.
Mountain States Legal Foundation submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in December, arguing that the cross must be allowed to stand. Today, we rest in the knowledge that our argument has been vindicated.
The case, The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, tested whether a cross-shaped World War I memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, known as the Peace Cross, honoring 49 local men who gave their lives in the conflict, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The radical atheist activists who wanted to tear down the cross had momentum on their side. On October 18, 2017, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Peace Cross violates the First Amendment’s command that “Congress shall make no law respect- ing an establishment of religion.”
If they succeeded in tearing down the Peace Cross, we knew that the radical atheists would not stop there. They would not be happy until it was illegal to display a cross anywhere on public land. Even the gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery could be deemed unconstitutional if they had their way. They had to be stopped.
Around the same time as the Fourth Circuit ruling, the Town of Taos, New Mexico, was threatened with potential legal action by another atheist group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Like the people of Bladensburg, Maryland, the people of Taos have their own cross-shaped memorial. Theirs honors local soldiers who fought in the Battle of Bataan during World War II, including those who died on the Bataan Death March. The town of Taos turned to Mountain States Legal Foundation for help.
Mountain States Legal Foundation filed an amicusbrief on behalf of the citizens of Taos in December 2018, urging the United States Supreme Court to allow the Bladensburg Peace Cross to stand, and to overturn the lower court. A majority on the Supreme Court agreed with our brief. Justice Samuel Alito reasoned that “destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.”
This is a clear victory for the First Amendment and the principles of religious liberty this Republic was founded on. The people of Taos, like the people of Bladensburg, are not trying to install a theocratic dictatorship; they’re just trying to honor their lost loved ones.
The Supreme Court has sent a strong message to radical atheist groups who want to impose their will on communities around the country. The high court has rightly overturned the Fourth Circuit Court andreaffirmed the right of communities to honor their war dead in the way they see fit.
MSLF attorney David McDonald represents the town of Taos and wrote an amicus brief for the Su- preme Court case American Legion v. American Humanist Association.