BY KATY CARL — On May 31, hundreds of area residents gathered at the Bladensburg Peace Cross in a demonstration against a lawsuit claiming that the 1925 war memorial violates the First Amendment’s ban on government-run religion.
The monument stands at the junction of Routes 1 and 450, near other memorials for those who died in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and 9/11, as well as a new memorial for soldiers of the War of 1812, which will be dedicated in August as part of the Battle of Bladensburg bicentennial commemoration.
The land the Peace Cross stands on is owned by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), which administers parks and planning in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. However, the American Legion raised $23,000 of the $25,000 needed to build the cross shortly after the end of World War I and has maintained it on the same spot ever since.
Many people see no reason to move it. The Facebook group “Save the Peace Cross!!” has more than 3,500 members, and Bladensburg police estimated that 250 people attended the recent protest. Demonstrators, many in Legion or armed-forces garb, lined Route 450 waving American flags and posters with such slogans as “The Peace Cross Is Not A Religion.”
Historically, the shape was chosen because during World War I, a cross was the standard tombstone used to mark the graves of American soldiers who died overseas. Mrs. Martin Redman, a Prince George’s County mother whose son died in France during that war, drew this connection in a letter in 1920.
“I feel that our memorial cross is, in a way, his grave stone,” wrote Redman, the treasurer of the original committee to build the cross.
A desire to honor the fallen strongly influences the debate around the cross. Another demonstration at the Peace Cross last October focused on the monument’s meaning to military members and their loved ones. The American Legion holds a commemorative ceremony near the cross each Memorial Day.
A Maryland judge will soon decide whether the Legion, which owns the memorial, has the right to be heard in a lawsuit that the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed on February 25 against the presence of the cross on public land.
The Liberty Institute, a legal-services nonprofit that favors freedom of public religious expression, seeks to help the Legion keep the cross in its current location. On May 1, they filed a request for the Legion to be made a party to the case.
That request will be considered by Deborah Chasanow, a U.S. district court judge for Maryland. Hyattsville resident Jonathan Berry, one of the lawyers who would represent the Legion in the case, said that the final brief was filed on May 21 and that a decision is expected soon.
Back in November, the M-NCPPC stated in a letter that it did not consider the cross was being used as a religious symbol in this context, a position Berry echoed. “Crosses have always been used in the American military as a secular symbol of selfless service and sacrifice,” he said.
But that use of the cross to convey secular meaning is just what the AHA objects to.
“If this is truly meant to be a war memorial that honors all of our fallen heroes, religious and non-religious, then a secular monument should be built,” said AHA spokeswoman Maggie Ardiente. “There are many beautiful secular monuments that pay tribute to our nation’s brave.”