Supreme Court Cross Case: Memorial Can Stand On Public Land The high court's conservative majority sided with those advocating for "religious freedom" in a major win for groups like the American Legion.


Supreme Court: Cross Can Stand On Public Land In Separation Of Church And State Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this morning that a 40-foot cross in the state of Maryland on public land can stay. Here's the backstory. The cross was built in 1925 and has served as a World War I memorial for almost a hundred years. Bereaved mothers in Bladensburg, Md., decided to build the memorial to honor their fallen sons. When they ran out of money, the American Legion took over the project.

But by the 1930s, a local parks commission had taken over the war memorial and the responsibility for its maintenance, but that meant taxpayer money was going to that maintenance. A lower court ruled the cross was unconstitutional. Today, though, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is at the Supreme Court and joins us now.

Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Explain what you know of the court's decision.

TOTENBERG: Well, the American Humanist Association wanted the cross moved to private land and funded privately, and the court said it didn't have to do that. Justice Samuel Alito wrote for a seven-justice majority in this case. And he began by summarizing what happened in World War II, how soldiers buried there, they put a cross on them. And they also put Stars of David. But the image that parents had in their mind and spouses had in their mind were these rows and rows of crosses. And he said that, therefore, it is not only a Christian symbol. He said the fact that the cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol should not blind one to everything else that the Bladensburg cross has come to represent - a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home, a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for this nation and a historical landmark. For many, he said, destroying or defacing the cross or moving it would not be a neutral act and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment guaranteed of protection of religion.

So that was his decision for the court - speaking for the court majority, but not everybody agreed with everything that he wrote.

MARTIN: Right. And they made that clear because I understand there was an exceptional amount of writing associated with this case.

TOTENBERG: Yeah. There were six - I think, six separate concurring opinions. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch didn't agree with almost anything that Alito said. They agreed with the bottom line, but Thomas said he doesn't think the First Amendment protection for religion - for religious neutrality applies to states. And Gorsuch said he thought the whole case should've been dismissed because the American Humanist Association didn't have standing to challenge this.

But the others did - and they have - I think there's - I haven't counted up, but I think there's probably more than a hundred pages of writing in this. But essentially, I think they agree - everybody agreed with the bottom line; that it's too late to go back and undo these kinds of very special kinds of monuments that are - that have a religious symbol.

MARTIN: You mentioned the dissenters, Justice Ginsburg and Sotomayor. Did they have anything notable to say here?

TOTENBERG: Well, Ginsburg actually gave her dissent from the bench, which is a mark that you really care about this, that you think this is important. And she said that the court today erodes the neutrality principle that we've had in the past, diminishing precedent that serves to preserve that neutrality. The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, she said, 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. It's not emblematic of any other faith. And by maintaining this cross on a public highway, the state places Christianity above other faiths and conveys a message of exclusion to non-Christians - nearly 30% of the U.S. population - telling them they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.

MARTIN: Lastly, Nina, I mean, what does this ruling mean practically speaking? Can someone just put up a cross on public land now?

TOTENBERG: I think not. I think this is an opinion that the majority of the court agreed with. And not just five members of the court, but seven members of the Court ultimately said this - upheld this. And it's based on history and tradition and seeing some sort of a difference between the Latin cross as a Christian symbol versus the Latin cross as a symbol of the dead.

MARTIN: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Thank you so much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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