The Supreme Court heard arguments last week that may lead to a more distinct line in the separation between church and state — or it may only narrow a certain aspect of that line. The indication, from an Associated Press story last week, is the court is averse to issuing a sweeping ruling.
Which may be a good thing, considering the justices are weighing whether a 40-foot cross on public land in Maryland that commemorates soldiers killed in World War I is unconstitutional. The decision could have broad implications regarding religious symbols in public life. However, Associate Justice Elena Kagan said the cross is historically linked with those who lost their lives fighting in the first World War, a factor that could lead to a more limited ruling.
"When you go into a World War I battlefield, there are Stars of David there, but because those battlefields were just rows and rows and rows of crosses, the cross became, in people's minds, the pre-eminent symbol of how to memorialize World War I dead," she told The AP. "So why in a case like this can we not say essentially the religious content has been stripped of this monument."
The local American Legion chapter raised funds for and had the so-called Peace Cross built to honor World War I veterans from Maryland who fought and died in battle. The monument, which is now nearly 100 years old, is maintained by the state of Maryland.
The case pits the American Legion against the American Humanist Association, a District of Columbia-based group that argues the location of the cross on public land violates the First Amendment's establishment clause that prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others, according to the AP report. They said the cross should be moved to private land or redesigned into a non-religious monument.
The American Legion argues the cross has a secular purpose and therefore doesn't violate the establishment clause. The concern among those defending the cross is the ruling could impact hundreds of memorials across the country because crosses are often used to commemorate soldiers who have died. The Humanist Association addressed the concerns of one justice by saying only between 10 and 20 crosses fall into the same category as the Maryland cross, meaning large ones on public lands where it isn't part of a memorial or similar setting such as a cemetery, the AP reported.
The high court has visited this territory before. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for the Ten Commandments to be displayed on the Texas state capitol, according to an AP story. The court was divided on the issue, but landed on the side of saying the Ten Commandments were indeed religious but also historically important.
There is no doubt the cross has religious significance, especially for practitioners of the Christian faith. However, it has also been used throughout the years to memorialize the dead in connection to military service, regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Because of this historical significance through the years, the court must see this particular case as not crossing the boundary of the establishment clause and rule to keep the Peace Cross and other crosses like it in their places, looking over and memorializing those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
-- Amarillo (Texas) Globe-News