American Legion v. American Humanist Association

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American Legion v. American Humanist Association
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 27, 2019
Decided June 20, 2019
Full case nameThe American Legion, et al. v. American Humanist Association, et al.
Docket no.17-1717
Case history
PriorAm. Humanist Ass'n v. Maryland-Nat. Capital Park, 147 F. Supp. 3d 373 (D. Md. 2015); reversed, American Humanist v. MD-Nat'l Capital Park, 874 F.3d 195 (4th Cir. 2017); rehearing en banc denied, 891 F.3d 117 (4th Cir. 2018); cert. granted, 139 S. Ct. 451 (2018).
Questions presented
Whether a 93-year-old memorial to the fallen of World War I is unconstitutional merely because it is shaped like a cross, whether the constitutionality of a passive display incorporating religious symbolism should be assessed under prior case law tests, and whether the expenditure of funds for routine upkeep and maintenance of a cross-shaped war memorial, without more, amounts to an excessive entanglement with religion in violation of the First Amendment
Though a symbol of Christianity, the cross on public land does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment due to its historical value as a war memorial that has stood for nearly 100 years.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Neil Gorsuch · Brett Kavanaugh
Case opinions
MajorityAlito (Parts I, II–B, II–C, III, and IV), joined by Roberts, Breyer, Kagan, and Kavanaugh
PluralityAlito (Parts II-A and II-D), joined by Roberts, Breyer, and Kavanaugh
ConcurrenceBreyer, joined by Kagan
ConcurrenceKagan (in part)
ConcurrenceThomas (judgment)
ConcurrenceGorsuch (judgment), joined by Thomas
DissentGinsburg, joined by Sotomayor

American Legion v. American Humanist Association, No. 17-1717, 588 U.S. ___ (2019), was a United States Supreme Court case dealing with the separation of church and state related to maintaining the Peace Cross, a World War I memorial shaped after a Latin cross, on government-owned land, though initially built in 1925 with private funds on private lands. The case was a consolidation of two petitions to the court, that of The American Legion who built the cross (Docket 17-1717), and of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission who own the land and maintain the memorial (Docket 18-18). Both petitions challenged the Fourth Circuit's ruling that, regardless of the secular purpose the cross was built for in honoring the deceased soldiers, the cross emboldened a religious symbol and had ordered it altered or razed. The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit's ruling in a 7-2 decision, determining that since the Cross had stood for decades without controversy, it did not violate the Establishment Clause and could remain standing.[1]


The Peace Cross

The 40 feet (12 m)-tall Peace Cross (officially, the Bladensburg World War I Memorial) was constructed in Bladensburg, Maryland by the American Legion with private funding in 1925 to honor the local servicemen that died during World War I.[2] The creators opted for the cross shape to mirror the gravemarkers that were left in the war theaters to commemorate the dead buried there.[3] At the time it was built, the monument was on private land, but the land was donated in 1961 to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a bi-county agency in Maryland, making it parkland owned by the state.[2] The Commission continued to maintain the Cross even as additional highways were laid down across the land; the Cross eventually became a structure on the median of a highway, creating a potential safety hazard. The Commission provided illumination for the monument at night, and allowed the Cross to be used as a central point for Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances. Additional war memorials were built on nearby lands, creating the local Veterans Memorial Park.[3]

Around 2012, local residents recognized that the placement of the Cross on state lands and the Commission's continued care for it with taxpayer funds may be against the principle of the separation of church and state. A formal lawsuit was filed by the American Humanist Association, an atheist advocacy group, that argued that the Peace Cross violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The case was heard by Judge Deborah Chasanow of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, which granted summary judgement for the Commission.[4] Chasanow wrote that by the test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Van Orden v. Perry and Town of Greece v. Galloway that the purpose of the Peace Cross was secular to honor fallen soldiers, and did not violate the Establishment Clause.[5]

The American Humanist Association appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling on a 2-1 basis, with the majority, Judges Stephanie Thacker and James A. Wynn Jr. arguing that despite the Commission's argument on the monument's secular nature, the symbol of the cross had been considered a religious icon for centuries, and thus they considered that its installation and maintenance on public lands violated the Establishment Clause.[6][2] Further, the decision argued that the Commission's continued maintenance of the memorial contributed to entangling the state with a religious figure, further violating the Establishment Clause, even though the Commissions argued this was for purposes of motorist safety. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the Commission's maintenance of the Peace Cross has "a primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government and religion".[7] The request for an en banc hearing was denied, though dissenters to this decision, including Chief Judge Roger Gregory who dissented on the first ruling, feared that the ruling could affect thousands of cross-shaped memorials on public lands even though they were built under similar secular purposes as the Peace Cross.[8] With the refusal, the Fourth Circuit subsequently ordered the Peace Cross to be altered so that it no longer resembled a cross, or to be razed.[9]

Supreme Court[edit]

Both the Commission and the American Legion filed petitions for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, asking them to review the Fourth Circuit's decision.[2] Both petitions were granted and consolidated to a single case. Questions asked included whether a memorial having the shape of a cross placed on public lands should be considered a violation of the Establishment Clause, or under what past tests they should be considered under, and whether maintaining such memorials for other interests of the state, such as road safety, creates entanglement under the Establishment Clause. Among those supporting the Commission and American Legion included numerous veterans groups, the Trump Administration, and several Congresspersons.[3] The Court accepted the case in November 2018.[10]

The issue of cross-shaped memorials on public lands had been previously heard in Salazar v. Buono in 2010; while the 5-4 majority ruled that the cross could stay, the rationale was heavily divided by the justices, with a total of six different opinions submitted as part of the case. This had made it difficult to use Salazar as case law for other related cases, such as this one.[11]

Oral arguments were heard February 27, 2019. Observers to the court believed the justices were in majority to support reversing the Fourth Circuit, believing that the memorial as built had secular purposes reflecting the way soldiers were memorialized at the time. However, how to qualify this under past case law was left as a question, and that if new memorials carrying the cross shape were installed today, they may not be acceptable under the Establishment Clause.[3][2]

The Supreme Court issued its ruling on June 20, 2019. In a complex decision with many additional opinions, the Court ruled 7-2 to reverse and remand the Fourth Circuit's decision and allowing the Cross to stand. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the plurality decision, stated that "The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent", and 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". Alito was joined by Roberts, Breyer, Kagan, and Kavanaugh. Thomas and Gorsuch wrote separate opinions that joined Alito's judgment.[12]

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Sotomayor. Ginsburg read her dissent at the bench at the announcement of the decision.[12] Although the dissent refers to the Latin cross as exclusively Christian, the majority opinion notes that the Swiss flag consists of a white cross on a red background.[13]


  1. ^ Am. Legion v. Am. Humanist Ass'n, No. 17-1717, 588 U.S. ___ (2019).
  2. ^ a b c d e Hurley, Lawrence (February 27, 2019). "U.S. top court sympathetic toward Maryland cross in major religion case". Reuters. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d de Vogue, Ariane (February 27, 2019). "Supreme Court suggests memorial cross does not violate separation of church and state". CNN. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
  4. ^ Am. Humanist Ass'n v. Maryland-Nat. Capital Park, 147 F. Supp. 3d 373 (D. Md. 2015).
  5. ^ von Spakovsky, Hans (December 1, 2015). "Judge Throws Out Lawsuit Filed by Those Who Found a WWI Memorial Cross Offensive". The Daily Signal. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  6. ^ Am. Humanist Ass'n v. Maryland-Nat. Capital Park, 874 F.3d 195 (4th Cir. 2017).
  7. ^ Baumgaertner, Emily (October 29, 2017). "A 40-Foot Cross Has Honored War Dead for 90 Years. Is It Unlawful?". The New York Times. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
  8. ^ Am. Humanist Ass'n v. Maryland-Nat. Capital Park, 891 F.3d 117 (4th Cir. 2018).
  9. ^ "Does a memorial to fallen soldiers breach the church-state wall?". The Economist. March 6, 2018. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  10. ^ Barnes, Robert; Marimow, Ann E. (2018-11-02). "Supreme Court will take case on constitutional challenge to Maryland's Peace Cross". Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  11. ^ Liptak, Adam (February 24, 2019). "40-Foot Cross Divides a Community and Prompts a Supreme Court Battle". The New York Times. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
  12. ^ a b Barnes, Robert (June 20, 2019). "Supreme Court rules that Maryland 'Peace Cross' honoring military dead may remain on public land". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 20, 2019.

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