Partner Michael Lockerby has authored an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the court-ordered removal of a towering cross-shaped memorial from a busy intersection in Prince Georges County, Maryland. Arguments are scheduled for February 27, 2019.
The memorial was ordered removed or altered last year by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that the 40-foot tall Latin cross, established in memory of soldiers who died in World War I, is a predominately Christian symbol and constitutes an endorsement of Christianity.
But Lockerby’s brief, filed December 21, 2018, on behalf of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties organization, argues that the Fourth Circuit has misinterpreted the Establishment Clause in a way that threatens citizens’ First Amendment rights to freely exercise their religion. It also says the Fourth Circuit ruling fosters a pervasive bias and hostility to religion and does not reflect the neutrality toward religion required by the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
“If allowed to stand, the Fourth Circuit’s decision will interfere with religious freedom in a way that would have been unfathomable even by the standards of eighteenth century England – much less those of the twenty-first century United States of America,” Lockerby wrote. “It will also create a precedent that would, for the very first time, transmogrify the First Amendment so that its protections of freedom of religion would be nullified by a mandate that public property be free from any display of religious symbols.”
The marble and concrete structure, flanked by an American flag and decorated with a small star, is known as the Peace Cross. It was built on private land using private funds in 1925 to honor 49 local men who died in World War I, but was eventually turned over to a state agency, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which has since spent about $217,000 to maintain and renovate it.
In 2014, the American Humanist Association sued to have the Peace Cross removed, asserting that its presence on publicly owned land violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. A federal court judge rejected the claim, ruling that the memorial had a primarily secular purpose and did not improperly endorse religion.
The Fourth Circuit reversed that decision, holding that a Latin cross is a predominately Christian symbol that constitutes an endorsement of that faith. Last November, however, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
A ruling is expected in the spring.
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