WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a 40-foot cross honoring soldiers who died in World War I could remain on state property in suburban Maryland. The cross, the court said, did not violate the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.
The decision was fractured, and the seven justices in the majority embraced differing rationales. In all, seven justices filed opinions.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for five justices, said the monument did not primarily convey a religious message.
“That the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts,” he wrote, “does not change the fact that the symbol took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summarized her dissent from the bench, a sign of profound disagreement. She said the monument sent a message of favoritism and exclusion.
“The Latin cross,” she said from the bench, “is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’ The Latin cross is not emblematic of any other faith.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined Ginsburg’s dissent.
The monument, known as the Peace Cross, is at a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Md., near Washington, and commemorates 49 fallen soldiers from Prince George’s County. It was built in 1925 using contributions from local families and the American Legion.
At the dedication ceremony, a member of Congress drew on Christian imagery in his keynote speech. “By the token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary,” he said, “let us keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.”
The state took over the monument and the land under it in 1961.
Several area residents and the American Humanist Association sued to remove the cross in 2014, saying they were offended by what they said was its endorsement of Christianity.
Alito wrote that four factors played a role in his analysis. Where older monuments are at issue, he wrote, it can be hard to identify “their original purpose of purposes.”
“It would be inappropriate for courts to compel their removal or termination based on supposition,” he wrote.
“Second,” Alito added, “as time goes by, the purposes associated with an established monument, symbol or practice often multiply.”
Third, he said, monuments can take on differing meanings over time, discussing at length the recent fire at Notre Dame in Paris.
“Although the French Republic rigorously enforces a secular public square,” Alito wrote, “the cathedral remains a symbol of national importance to the religious and nonreligious alike. Notre Dame is fundamentally a place of worship and retains great religious importance, but its meaning has broadened. For many, it is inextricably linked with the very idea of Paris and France.”
Finally, he said, the act of removing an old monument poses its own problems. “A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion,” Alito wrote.
The Peace Cross, he wrote, was and is a symbol of unity, noting that it included the names of both black and white soldiers at a time when the military was segregated.
“We can never know for certain what was in the minds of those responsible for the memorial,” Alito wrote, “but in light of what we know about this ceremony, we can perhaps make out a picture of a community that, at least for the moment, was united by grief and patriotism and rose above the divisions of the day.”
In a concurring opinion that agreed with the majority’s bottom line but not its reasoning, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that “offended observers” such as those who sued to remove the Peace Cross had not suffered the sort of injury that gave them standing to sue. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Gorsuch’s concurrence.
In her dissent, Ginsburg called Gorsuch’s analysis “startling,” saying that it would have stopped the court from considering several of the disputes that gave rise to major rulings on the separation of church and state.