SCOTUS Ruling on ‘Peace Cross’ Memorial Echoes Lockerby Brief

20 June 2019 Media Contact: Jill Chanen News

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of allowing a giant cross-shaped memorial built to honor fallen World War I soldiers to continue to tower over a busy intersection in Prince Georges County, Md., echoing the position argued in an amicus brief by partner Michael Lockerby.

The court, in a 7-2 ruling, held that the memorial holds a secular meaning that comports with the constitutional separation of church and state.

Lockerby, in an amicus brief he wrote on behalf of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties organization, had argued that the memorial’s removal would signal an improper hostility to religion that has manifested itself in efforts to remove any references to God or religion from public places.

If allowed to stand, Lockerby wrote of a lower court ruling ordering the removal of the cross, it would interfere with religious freedom in a way that would have been “unfathomable“ even by the standards of eighteenth century England, let alone those of the twenty-first century United States. “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,” he wrote.

The 40-foot tall Latin cross, which is 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 fall, however, the Supreme Court agreed to settle the matter.